Inside The One Party State 
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 guerrillas snapshots from the municipal front line
A Friday in May, 2021, and the beer garden at the back of Bar Fringe. Claire McDonald glares at webcast footage of a council planning committee meeting as the development she fought to prevent is voted through.
As a founder member of Trees Not Cars, a local pressure group opposed to council plans to bring an Ancoats car park back into commission, Claire campaigned vigorously to stop the space being returned to its prior purpose in order to generate revenue to offset the council’s land purchase for a proposed development on the site.
Parcelled between a primary school and the multi-lane highway of Great Ancoats Street, there-commissioned car park could only worsen the choking air quality on the children’s doorstep, campaigners argued.
“You could feel it in your throat as you came up the road from Beswick,” she told Confidential back in February.
The campaign struck a chord with Ancoats residents – sufficiently so, she tells me, that with the committee set to convene Sir Richard took the unusual step of emailing councillors reminding them of the need to recoup costs associated with the land now leased over to developers at the Abu Dhabi United Group.
The council leader is himself a director at the Manchester Life development partnership between the Emiratis and the municipality.
Given the rules protecting the sanctity of planning committee procedure, the email raised eyebrows among the campaigners.
Then, just days before the meeting, the committee line-up was refreshed by Sir Richard’s right-hand man, Karney. Two members (Cllrs Ben Clay and James Wilson) known for mumbling against the party line were replaced. One of the new men, Miles Platting & Newton Heath representative John Flanagan, had himself advised on the land purchase for the site.
The affair hit the newspapers when the committee’s decision to approve the plan was overturned in the High Court – His Honour Judge Bird ruling that planning officers had misled the committee with scientific advice that the re-commissioned car park would bear “no impact” on local air quality.
It’s when Claire describes the original 2019 planning meeting as “a performance” that your reporter’s ears prick up.
“It was confusing,” she says. “My colleague Julia was at the meeting. I was watching the webcast at home. When it went to the vote I thought we must have won – they don’t show the hands in the air – because almost nobody had seemed to speak up in favour of the proposal.”
In fact, they’d lost the ballot by seven votes to three.
Why would a proposal so lacking in vocal support be voted through, she wondered?
It was only when she watched the webcast back that she got a sense of what appeared to have happened.
She shows me the council’s webcast footage on her laptop.
Jon Connor-Lyons, the young Piccadilly ward representative, is speaking. He says he grew up in the area and visited the stores there all his life.
“I’m voting against this based on the safety of children,” he says. “Right next to this proposed car park is a primary school. It’s outrageous that anyone would want to do this. It’s completely despicable.”
“Jon was very supportive of our campaign,” says Claire, pausing the video. “If you watch, he’s both read the report and refers to the information that the planning department gave him. No one else seems to reference the data in the document the councillors were provided.”
I can see Claire is prepared for this.
She clicks Play.
Majid Dar, one of the three Ancoats & Beswick ward representatives, is speaking.
“Residents are the life and blood of the ward and therefore as ward councillor I fully support them in their campaign. The plans for the car park are completely out of keeping with the aspirations of the community and go against the council’s recent motion to declare a climate emergency. Today is a chance for the planning committee…to show our residents that this is their Manchester.”
“Majid was the only one of our three ward councillors to publicly come out in favour of our campaign,” says Claire. “He isn’t on the planning committee so he doesn’t have a vote, but he’s turned up to speak from the floor.”
She clicks Play.
Jill Lovecy, member for Rusholme, is speaking. She too is unimpressed by the proposal. “It does seem to me that when we’re talking about a site in proximity to a primary school we should be looking to have very much more stringent arrangements in terms of protecting the school and the school playing fields…we should at the very least be looking towards limiting parking or preventing parking in the area closest to the school in order to maximise the chance that we’re limiting new pollution coming into this area.”
“That stringent arrangement is your civic duty to not pass the proposal for a car park next to a primary school!” says Claire to Jill on the screen. “I think Jill voted against the proposal but she doesn’t seem to me to be on top of the brief.”
There’s a pause.
“It’s the next ones,” she says.