Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Sensible Socialism: The Salford Model

Like its near-neighbour Preston, Salford's left-leaning council has put socialist policies into practice at a local level – and been rewarded with public housing, well-paying jobs, insourcing and a greener city.

Last December, it was my privilege to announce the next stage of Salford’s Council House building scheme, through which the council intends to build 3,000 more homes over the coming years.

The announcement was the culmination of over four years of work on our council-owned development company Derive since my election as Salford City Mayor in 2016. These have been four years in which Salford has pursued a radical policy agenda in local government, which I have come to term ‘Sensible Socialism’ – or the Salford Model.

The Preston Model is well known. Just a few miles down the road, my friend and colleague Matt Brown, as leader of Preston City Council, has pursued an innovative local government agenda to revitalise the city’s ailing local economy. Through it, ‘anchor institutions’ like the council, university, and other large employers and spenders commit to joint procurement and social value standards, making sure that contracts are only awarded to companies and businesses who can display progress on developing local supply chains, good terms and conditions for staff, and a small carbon footprint.

These elegantly simple reforms to the joint procurement processes of the city’s big spenders have transformed the fortunes of Preston, which for many years has languished alongside other post-industrial northern towns in a state of protracted economic decline. In direct contrast to other towns in the area, Preston’s high street is buzzing with businesses and visitors. Against all odds, the city is experiencing economic growth with local enterprise and decent, well-paid jobs at its core.

Preston’s reforms—which my local authority hopes to emulate—have set the new gold standard in procurement practice across local government. It is no coincidence that such an innovative policy has been trialled under the leadership of Matt Brown, a left-Labour leader willing to tear up the rulebook and try something new. In the face of hostility—not only from ‘officials’, but also from the professional sphere and dissidents within his own local party—Matt has confounded critics with bold moves to put Preston on the map.

Salford’s own economic miracle is less well documented – though, in my opinion, no less significant. As a city built on mines, mills, factories, and docks, we have suffered greatly from deindustrialisation since the 1980s – and the city has for some time possessed a reputation for poverty, deprivation, and serious organised crime. But as a consistent Labour authority since 1974, Salford’s political leadership hasn’t taken decline lying down. Over the last 15 years, Salford Council has responded to ever-diminishing budgets (under New Labour, Coalition, and Tory governments) with a huge programme of local authority-led investment – and more recently, insourcing and new municipalism.

Keeping it Green

Through our capital programme, Salford Council has borrowed billions of pounds to invest into our local economy and infrastructure. We have justified this borrowing on a purely commercial basis, raising revenues which cover our interest payments while helping to protect jobs and services in local government at a time that national governments pursued a programme of cuts and austerity, and increasingly gerrymandered local government financing. The result has been a local economy which defies all expectations, providing well above the average rates of economic growth compared to other areas of the country, and rebuilding our city’s industrial heritage for a clean energy and high-tech digital future.

The best known project that council investment has enabled is MediaCity, now home to the country’s second-largest hub for broadcast and media and its second-largest hub of digital and AI industries outside London. On the same site, the Salford Docks employed 5,000 people at their closure in 1982; today, around 250 businesses operate in and around MediaCity, employing around 7,000 people. A further 600 digital and creative industries contribute another 2,000 jobs to our city’s economy, providing around five percent of the city’s overall employment. Phase II of MediaCity expansion is already underway, promising to double the size of the current development and delivering thousands more employment opportunities.

But Salford’s industrial strategy doesn’t end there. The city’s investments cover a huge array of economic areas, and increasingly place us at the forefront of Greater Manchester’s green economy. Since 2010, Salford Council has invested around £127 million into our green spaces and green infrastructure, providing many miles of cycle paths and walking routes, as well as renovating disused wasteland to create new parks (like our Cutacre Park), and opening public access to peat bogs, in collaboration with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, as areas of stunning natural beauty.

This work is having a clear and visible impact on our natural environment. In recent years, our city—which has had native wildlife decimated for centuries since the first industrial revolution—has seen otters and beavers swimming in the river Irwell. Our population of birds, insects, and wild deer is exploding. Alongside infrastructure projects like our forthcoming solar farm in Little Hulton, and an electric dam at Charlestown Weir, Salford has used stringent planning guidelines to protect green space and heritage.

From once being labelled Britain’s ‘Dirty Old Town’ by legendary local playwright and songwriter Ewan McColl, Salford has now been named the North West’s greenest council by Friends of the Earth, and the most sustainable council in all of England and Wales by the Centre for Thriving Places.

We have been able to justify the investments made into green infrastructure partially through the development of a tourism economy around our parks and wildlife hotspots. The opening of the Royal Horticultural Society’s fifth national garden in Worsley will soon add to our growing list of green space in the city, and mark out Salford as a go-to destination for lovers of nature, horticulture, botany, and wildlife.

Arts and Industry

With support and stewardship from the local council, our arts and cultural sector is also experiencing growth – despite horrendous constraints placed upon them by the impact of Covid-19. International arts institutions like the Lowry Gallery and Theatre at MediaCity play a massive role in bringing arts investment and funding into the city, and as a local authority, the council is investing resources to tackle the gentrification of artistic communities by providing them with stable areas of secure, low rent.

Recently, the council has announced a multi-million pound project in collaboration with renowned arts venue Islington Mill to expand and renovate the footprint of the Mill’s existing site, under a new management arrangement which puts the welfare of tenants and artistic residencies at the heart of the building’s ownership.

Under a new charitable trust, the Mill will now manage the expanded site, providing low-cost residential and studio space for local artists and musicians, and ensuring the security and sustainability of that community amid the rapid commercial development of the surrounding area. If successful, the model that has been used with the Mill can be replicated across the city, ensuring that the arts and creative industries have a secure role in the future economic development.

Over the coming years, we also plan to make good on our cultural strategy commitments to democratise our city’s public realm—opening up parks, streets, and public places for events to be hosted, communities to celebrate, and artists to utilise—making Salford one of the easiest places in the world to put on events and activities.

The Council is also invested in the delivery of ‘Port Salford’, the reopening of the Manchester-Liverpool ship canal to shipping and freight, in a historic project to centre Salford as an international hub of shipping and logistics. It is hoped that 3,000 new jobs will be created by the project, which, sitting opposite from the gigantic Trafford Park industrial estate, would act as a new gateway for industrial and manufacturing growth across the Northwest. Such an enormous project could turn the tide of fate in the region in a post-Brexit, post-Covid-19 recovery, and lays the groundwork for new productive and skilled industries to form the foundation of our national recovery.

In addition, targeted council-led regeneration projects like the multi-storey commercial premises on our border with Manchester, have brought in direct revenues, as well as heralding the relocation of large firms and government departments to Salford, bringing rent, rates, and jobs.

Putting Growth to Use

In the last five years, Salford has gained 22,000 new jobs – and despite Covid-19, we are anticipating further growth of 40,000 new jobs by 2040. Between 2015 and 2019, those figures account for a seven percent increase in the employment rate in our city – the highest growth in Greater Manchester. The implications of this growth have been profound for the fate of the local council, and have dramatically affected my own achievements as mayor.

Between 2017 and 2019, Salford’s business rates base increased by £2.7 million, and our council tax base has risen by £13.5 million per year. In the same two years, the council negotiated nearly £10 million in Section 106 payments from the proceeds of development, and we estimate that almost £1 billion has been invested into our city in the same time, comprising over £700 million private investment and nearly £200 million public investment. The direct return to Salford City Council has been an extra £39.5 million, which would otherwise have been unavailable.

In the context of yearly annual cuts to revenue budgets—cuts which have seen Salford Council’s annual base revenue budget (the budget which pays for the employment of local government workers and the delivery of services) more than halved since 2010/11—this money has been a lifeline, enabling the administration to make progress on priorities and projects for the city which would otherwise have been impossible.

The growth has enabled the council to embark on an ambitious insourcing programme, returning services lost to private tenders or PFIs under the Thatcher and Blair administrations to local authority hands. The most significant of these measures was taken last year, when UrbanVision (responsible for road maintenance, highways, and building control) was brought back in-house.

The council house building programme referenced at the top of this article is a further example of our determination to put people before profit, and to provide good quality direct services to the public wherever it is in the public interest. It has also enabled the local authority to make serious and clear moves to defend our existing service provision against cuts, such as our defence of local authority-maintained nurseries following changes to national government’s funding formula, our opening of seven new libraries, and our replacement of a maternity unit lost from the local hospital with our Ingleside birthing unit set in the grounds of Oakwood Park.

The money has also enabled us to move on some of our key Labour movement priorities, such as providing decent pay for the city’s carers and foster parents. Carers in Salford have seen pay rises up to £9.30 an hour—just short of the Real Living Wage campaign’s target of £9.50 an hour—following the ‘Salford Offer’ drawn up by Salford Council and Salford UNISON. Joint council-union partnerships have been integral, enabling us to manage our industrial relations through a period of horrendous cuts. Working with the unions, the council has managed job losses of almost 50 percent of our workforce since 2010 with small numbers of involuntary redundancies – and we have protected terms and conditions for staff, which in many other councils have taken a battering.

Changing the Future

The Thatcherite model of hollowed-out councils as procurement hubs for private contracts, as opposed to providers of direct services, has gutted the capacity of many local authorities to provide the basics. The outsourcing and commissioning model has been forced on councils, engendering a race to the bottom in terms of decent pay and terms of conditions of employment, and removing significant layers of democratic accountability from the delivery of services.

In Salford, we see it as our task to challenge this conception of local government at its root – and to create what the current director of the Centre for Local Economic Studies (and one of the co-authors of the Preston Model), Neil McInroy, has termed the ‘New Municipalism’. It’s a vision particularly suited to the Local Authority areas of the former ‘Red Wall’, post-industrial towns which have lost their economic purpose after decades of wilful neglect by national government. I believe it is a model which can also speak to local councils across the country.

The vision is for a local economy based on interesting, fulfilling, well-paid, and secure jobs in practical industries and professions – a local economy in which small businesses, co-operatives, and mutual community enterprises can thrive. To bind it together successfully, this economy needs a local council ready to intervene with support and planning, to put its hand in its pocket to make sensible long-term investments, and to directly provide essential services for its residents. In effect, we intend to do in miniature that which successive national governments have entirely failed to do at scale: direct our economy and society towards a model where work serves the needs of people, and not the other way around.

The Salford Model has evolved partly as a survival plan for a progressive local authority through many decades of assault and hardship. But within it, I believe it there are the seeds of a functional and effective model of local government in its own right. Financially self-reliant, economically interventionist and socially conscious – delivering on the expectations of both the public and political expectations of a local authority on their own terms, while also facilitating a progressive economic agenda. Such a strong local government role is now all the more vital to help our economy and country recover from the pandemic.

In Salford, we have challenged the assumption that nothing is achievable in local government without national political change. This is a fatalistic assumption, which played no small part in Labour’s devastating 2019 general election losses in many of its deprived former heartlands after so many years of economic sabotage and assault from Westminster. National contexts do have a huge impact on our fortunes locally, it’s true – but with will and determination, there is still much which can be done in our cities, towns, communities, and neighbourhoods, to make life better for working people.