Did Manchester City Council rig the vote on a controversial car park development? Was the Leese administration “rehearsed in private and performed in public”? Twelve guerrilla snapshots from the municipal front line

[Photo: David Dixon / Creative Commons]
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“If Leese has gone rogue and aimed a stink cloud at these kids then he needs to be stopped.”

Weeks have passed. Schofield’s interview has splashed: “SIR RICHARD LEESE, 25 YEARS AT THE TOP”. I decline to contribute, telling the office I’m still chasing down my story.

I catch Flanagan on the phone, still trying to get the measure of this planning committee business. At every turn the story seems to go bizarrely off-piste.

For Flanagan it’s the school which is under suspicion, now. In fact, in light of our conversation, he tells me, he’s decided to take up the issue of car parks near schools as a campaign. He’s even contacted the Manchester Evening News, who have run a piece about it.

With a new school set to open in his ward he’s annoyed to have heard on the grapevine that the Ancoats one has put in an application to build some staff parking bays.

“That’s what I heard,” he says. “But don’t take my word for it. Do a bit of digging.”

What of the committee though? What about the emails sent by Sir Richard and Pat Karney reminding Labour group members of the need to recoup the costs of the land? Weren’t those illegal?

“I think you’d need to have a word with them. I’ve no idea what you’re on about.”

It may sound dodgy, but I’m still wondering if this notion of rehearsals and pre-meetings might have been stretched by the various parties with axes to grind against the Leese administration.

“I suppose if you wanted to perform the outcome of a committee meeting,” I say, “then experienced councillors wouldn’t really need to pre-meet or pre-rehearse. It’d be pretty straightforward to know what to do.”

“Well I’m certainly not there to represent Richard or anyone else. I’m there to represent the people of Miles Platting and Newton Heath. To pre-rehearse something…let’s just say why have there been so many applications objected to?”

 

When I email Leech to ask why he didn’t report the pre-meeting he claims he walked in on to the city solicitor, I get a one-line reply.

“I did not report it to the city solicitor, because they would simply have denied that they were discussing what was on the planning agenda.”

“Do you think you should have reported it, in retrospect?”

“No, because it would have been my word against the word of several Labour councillors. You only have to look at the outcome of the independent investigation into claims of bullying and harassment against Cllr Karney – despite video evidence in the public domain, and a recommendation from the independent investigation that he was guilty, Labour Councillors overturned the recommendation and found him Not Guilty.”

Science is divided as to whether eye movement is an indicator of truthfulness. And to be sure, there isn’t the slightest proof the committee fixed the vote on the car park application.

Flanagan, who was generous with his time and accepted an ambush in good part, at least came out brawling in his defence.

There is no evidence he has done anything remotely wrong.

So I start to look at it all again from the other side.

It’s the obvious next trap door.

Don’t be naïve about council planning.

It is, after all, more or less a byword for backroom deals the length and breadth of the land.

Is all this really so scandalous?

Would anything ever get done in local government without a bit of nodding and winking along the way?

Is it not all part of the game…which no one, from any party, is ever going to change?

I think to myself: the Lib Dems…the women’s contingent…the progressive Left…all of them struggling to land any kind of a blow on the executive.

Somewhere, at the outset of all this, I had a different article in mind. The one I set out to write…about factions and power structures and how all the little bits of machinery fit together.

The gate-keeping in the ward groups. How Lucy Powell supposedly sewed up Manchester Central. How the Labour Group put the Lib Dems in a box by never letting them forget an old campaign blunder. How Momentum’s ‘Summer of Love’ turned sour as the uprising was derailed into a culture war, pitting the hipsters against the working-class foot-soldiers.

Such things aren’t necessarily corrupt, though.

And in Manchester we always seem to come back to planning.

This monopoly, this one-party state, I think…what if it’s clean?

What if everything is above-board and by-the-book?

What if people see ‘rehearsal’ and ‘performance’ where there is simply ‘procedure’ – and merely wish these supposed crimes into existence?

How strange would it be if the municipality was ruled by diktat, and yet administered without any abuse of process?

And then it hits me: that seems the most frightening notion of all.

 

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