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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Albert Square, dawn. Nobody is about to see the leader of Manchester City council emerge from a town hall side entrance and make his way across the cobbles toward the shadows at the Princess Street corner.

Clutching his parka to his chin he passes the memorial, mouth set tight in that rictus of resolve which can give his bloodless lips the appearance of a talking scar.

Reaching the road, he stops, fumbles for his gloves, then looks sky-ward into the eye of the land-whale.

Planting a foot on the beast’s fringe he hoists himself upward, fingers scrabbling for purchase in pools of steaming mucus. The stench of marsh gas is like a cosh, but once in the saddle the creature’s low centre of gravity cradles him, he can breathe freely and feel its low-hertz heart hammering like a disco beat in the seat of his pants.

Twitching the rein he clicks his heels, waking the mollusc to motion. Tentacles twirling, it sets off in the direction of London.

This is Sir Richard’s ride…maw munching at the planters under GCHQ, tail tickling at the window of Marks & Sparks.

When it comes to local government, it’s said, Sir Richard has the largest gastropod.

In Nottingham, David Mellen’s is quicker out of the blocks, having been known to cross the lights at Beardward Lane in an afternoon.

In Wigan they’re under review after the Lady Mayor was thrown from her mount when the snail she was riding refused a beer lake in the aftermath of a rock festival.

When the city boys bet on these fuckers it’s Sir Richard’s ride that takes the big money.

The thing with riding a slug is, though…how do you create the illusion of speed?

How do you wash away the trails all over the north?

How do you wake from the whorls of a daydream when you find them sticking to your mind like mental goo?

The café bars around the square afford the opportunity to wipe some of it under the table, at least, while canvassing some off-the-record opinion.

For the price of a latte I speak to Brian – not his real name – a career staffer at the town hall.

“What you’re looking at are distortions,” he tells me. “The distortions of an organisation that has gone through cuts.”



“Take my department. Homelessness. At any one time in 2012 we had a hundred and twenty families in temporary accommodation. By 2019 that was up to fifteen hundred.”

To Brian it’s impossible to consider council politics…Sir Richard’s tenure, the one-party state and all the rest of it…without understanding the war on local government which has been waged since the 1980s.

Rate-caps, borrowing bans, grant cuts…all have been wielded in the attempt to bring wilful authorities to heel and reduce the provision of services to a bare bones operation under the thumb of central government.

“The property boom, welfare reform, the benefit cap, frozen wages, part time work, zero hours contracts, fastest-growing city, rents rising, no housing stock…all these things push people towards council services,” says Brian. “But the austerity years saw huge redundancies, a third of our workforce gone at a stroke in 2012. That left managers and their incompetence exposed.

If they keep appointing more and more senior managers it doesn’t solve the problem, though. And the new management class is apolitical. They see austerity as bad weather. I’m a socialist, I look after homeless people. I see it as class war.”

Flo, another long-term staffer, lays the blame for council dysfunction at Sir Howard’s door.

“He was the man who worked his way up from the post room all the way to chief exec. Knew everyone in every department. Then when he got to the top, that’s when things started to go awry. By that time his focus was international, bringing investment into the city from across the world, so he lost touch with the people who were working for him. People were badly promoted or appointed to departments they were ill-suited to.”

“The problem with the Highways and Planning department isn’t the executive member responsible,” says Dougal. “The problem is putting Highways and Planning in the same department. Highways serves the motorist. Planning is supposed to serve the citizen. So that’s a recipe for a six-lane highway on Great Ancoats Street right there.”


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