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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There’s a meeting, then the piece is spiked.

“We don’t have the legal resources, Danny,” Lucy tells me. “We see the quality…if you publish it elsewhere, we’ll promote it on social media.”

I try Conrad Bower at The Meteor, who is interested, and email Leech.

“What is the law they are breaking if they have a pre-meeting?”

“Sorry, I don’t know. My advice would be to email [MCC Planning Officer] Julie Roscoe and ask for confirmation of what advice is given to members of the Planning committee, and it will be in that.”

I should be cursing myself but I’m cursing him. You should know, John. If you’re accusing the Labour Group of breaking the law then you should know which law they’re breaking.

He sends me a link to the council’s constitution document, which yields nothing.

You should know, John.

“Try the city solicitor.”

So I do.

“There is nothing criminal in having pre meetings and managing the agenda,” Fiona Ledden replies. “For planning committee or indeed scrutiny meetings there is a requirement for Members to come with a mind that is open to be persuaded and not a closed mind on the applications before them.”

So it isn’t a criminal offence. There’s nothing wrong with it at all.

Yet both Leech and Flanagan – politicians on either side of the floor, one of them a planning committee member – told me it was.

I’m fuming.

“I passed on information in good faith,” Leech cyber-shrugs.

What about Flanagan, though? Why would he back him up? What’s in it for planning committee member John Flanagan to falsely claim that for the committee to pre-meet would be a criminal offence?

The two men are conspicuously friendly – Flanagan being the one Labour councillor who appears to have the time of day for the Lib Dem leader. You need only take a look at any given council recess to see them sharing a joke, teacups and saucers in hand.

But I knew all that.

I email Flanagan.

“When you have a moment, John…? 1. Do you not understand the rules around planning or did you wilfully misrepresent them? 2. Do you now accept on the eyewitness evidence of Cllrs Hutchinson and Leech that Planning Committee pre-meetings take place? 3  Have you ever attended a pre-meeting of the Planning Committee? 4  On what date were you added to the Planning Committee prior to the vote on the Central Retail Park vote on 17/10/19? (You promised to check this and get back to me with the date).

I see the charmlessness of it, now.

Notwithstanding which, it seems to pull the tiger’s tail.

“Hi Danny, I am going to pass on your email to the City Solicitor and ask if John Leech reported the incident that you referred to so that they can reply to you. I wasn’t at any pre meeting with David Elision, I am sure that this could be verified by asking John Leech.”

On the subject of the law, now:

“Regarding the rules of pre meetings, my understanding is, there are no rules to prevent a chair holding a meeting to arrange the running order of a meeting. However it is against the rules to prejudge a planning decision and hold a meeting to do so. Again I will pass on your question to the city solicitor so she can provide you with a more detailed response.”

Why would the opposition leader and an experienced Labour member of the planning committee make the same basic mistake about planning law, and back each other up on it?

Who’s behind that, then?

Karney?

Leech?

Flanagan?

Jonathan?

Lucy?

The Hulme contingent?

Some of them?

Two of them?

None of them?

All of them?

 

Once upon a time the council was a provider of services. It took your bins away and made recreation places and offered means to assist you if you were disadvantaged in some way.

It wasn’t a property developer which built investment opportunities on the basis that they supposedly benefit everybody.

Bookended by two major bomb attacks, Sir Richard’s twenty-five-year reign has blazed a trail for an entierely new form of local government; one in which the council is a facilitator between the public and private sectors; one which built a whole new town in the city centre of Manchester, whose fortunes allegedly trickle down to the outlying regions.

He was certainly never found to have lied over the Operation Augusta affair. But barely a few months after that strange morning at the town hall, when full council met to acknowledge that a culture of child sexual exploitation had pervaded at its care homes, under its watch, with the knowledge of its workers, under the noses of city councillors, despite reports and whistleblowers and cries for help and phone calls to the police…just a few months after that morning, when Karney helped Sue Cooley to her seat, the council took Joan Agoglia to court in a bid to prevent her recovering her granddaughter Victoria’s effects.

“They don’t give a monkey’s about her grandma,” Maggie Oliver, the former policewoman who blew the whistle on the grooming scandal, tells me. “They don’t care a bit about getting justice for her before she dies…All they want to do is cover up what they’ve done wrong. They’re just another public body that will protect the organization rather than protect those they are meant to be protecting.”

Sir Richard is to become head of the new Integrated Care Board, we learn – allowing him to pursue his political passion for DevoManc and the provision of joined-up healthcare services.

Yet it seems such a low-key end to everything.

Why?

And why now?

 

Did Ekua’s leadership bid have anything to do with it?

The following year. I’m in a newbuild living room with Marcia Hutchinson, Ancoats & Beswick representative for the past twelve turbulent months – and Bayunu’s closest political ally in recent times.

It seems only the day before yesterday she won her seat…the Oxbridge polymath with the OBE; lawyer, children’s book publisher, long term community activist… outgunning all-comers in the ballot box before appearing to combust on entry into council atmosphere; going rogue upon contact with the game, the onetime convenor of the feted Pipeline Project aimed at encouraging African heritage people into local politics, now within a short time at the town hall leaking her frustrations to a Levenshulme local news Twitter thread, finding herself sanctioned by the Whips office, shunned by her Labour group colleagues and ultimately off sick prior to stepping down…all within the compass of a calendar-year skirmish with power which has culminated in her alleging institutional racism in the mix.

Writing about her, I find it difficult to reconcile the observation that in twelve months she has appeared to play the game of politics quite clumsily – although I can certainly relate to that – with deference to her quite apparently illustrative contention that she has been dealt with rather more than clumsily: her narrative involving the detail that it was put to her it was she who was the racist with regard to the ongoing dispute.

“We are through the looking glass,” she tells me, “If white men are telling a black woman who has complained about racism that a condition of a continued conversation with her is that she first apologises for her [own] racism.”

“I used to go in thinking, you’re picketing the wrong meeting,” she says of her time on the planning committee – a former planning lawyer herself, though never involved in the car park issue. “In one case I was told ‘Yeah good Marcia, it’ll be good to have somebody sounding a bit of opposition in the meeting.’

It was almost a rehearsal.”

Your reporter is obliged to underscore that Marcia’s recollections, though committed to my Dictaphone, are her own and remain uncorroborated – prior inferences from the leader of the opposition party notwithstanding. There is no corroborating evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of the planning committee should one choose to see in that statement any implication as such, merely a public interest in drawing attention to it. Manchester city council’s planning committee has in no substantive way been shown to have acted improperly with regard to any of its decisions other than the Ancoats car park decision which was overturned on Judicial Review in particular connection to the Planning Officer’s environmental impact advice and never recommissioned – nor have Marcia Hutchinson, John Flanagan, David Ellison, Pat Karney, John Leech, Mark Garner, Jonathan Schofield or Sir Richard Leese been shown to have acted improperly in any way whatsoever.

About Ekua’s bid, though…when the conversation slips that way…I know she’ll tell me it did have something to do with it, but I’m curious as to whether she will say it with the conviction of somebody wanting to convince herself or with that of someone whose view is reflected back to her by her associates.

“They bent over backwards to claim it was nothing, [that] it was a mere trifle,” she avers. “The way these things work is confidence. If nobody’s ever challenged Richard then nobody’s ever going to challenge Richard. Once someone does all bets are off. Because it’s my understanding that Ekua would have just kept challenging every year and the votes would creep up and people would become less and less concerned about Richard. I know Ekua very well and she was like, I’ll just keep going…”

The idea of the futile leadership bid had been to create a disruption, so they said. To disrupt lines of thinking. To get everyone thinking differently. To show a world where things could be different to how they are now and to get people to visualise it.

To put up a woman with no experience and no political capital whatsoever other than a personal grudge against the man who had led Manchester City Council for a quarter of a century.

To show which way the wind was blowing.

Four months later he was gone.

Marcia is, it ought to be said, the most marginal figure in the Labour group right now, with scarcely a colleague along the corridors of the town hall who will give her the time of day. But it sounds to me like she thinks they pulled it off.

 

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