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Plans Without the People

A new book which draws from Manchester’s radical past to chart a future free from landlordism erases Mancunians from their own story — and leads to political incoherence, writes Sam Wheeler.

(Joe Cleary / Unsplash)

Last Christmas I came out of a pub in Manchester city centre with my brother, parents and grandparents early in the evening. I looked up from the base of one of the towers along Great Ancoats Street. 14 stories, 100 or so apartments. I saw four lights on. One supposes this great exodus of the new workforce that occurs around the holidays would have been familiar to President Xi when he visited Manchester in 2015, along with much of the rest of the model. Dengism with Mancunian characteristics.

That slightly uncanny feeling came back to me when I read Isaac Rose’s book, The Rentier City. It is part potted Lancashire economic history, part analysis of the admitted strangeness of Manchester politics, and part a series of anecdotes. It ends with a cri de coeur about hope for the future, but seems not to really have any concrete plan for what that future should be, let alone a blueprint for getting there. David Wilkinson has praised the book in Tribune for putting into the demotic observations otherwise confined to the academic literature, but the whole point of taking those cold arguments to a medium of greater freedom and passion is to give them a human face. And it is the profound absence of the people of Manchester from their own story that is the most bewildering. One gets the sense that they fall rather short of the author’s expectations.

Ignored History

To get mentioned in this book, one seemingly needs to be, in the author’s eyes at least, not just a victim — but cool. We get a reference to Manchester Jewry if they’re refugees wrestling with Marxist theory, but not if they’re the older mercantile community who sang God Save the Queen in the Great Synagogue under the Union Jack. The Irish are a loveable roguish chorus to the Peterloo Massacre, but the mass Catholicism that welded a political allegiance well into the late twentieth century doesn’t get a line.

LGBT people receive brief mention around Section 28, but there’s no analysis of how the community pioneered city centre living in Manchester — of the specific housing policy of giving flats to homeless gay teenagers — and the social and economic effects of this (which is odd for a book with a focus on city centre housing). The complete absence of the city’s South Asian population (not least Cllr Nilofar Siddiqui from the list of women who broke barriers in the 1980s) is odd for a book that apparently holds a decolonising historiography.

Linked inextricably to this idealisation of specific, sympathetic silos of Manchester is the omission of that most uncool and unhelpful breed: Mancunian Tories. I don’t just mean Conservative voters, though there were many in Manchester until Thatcherism, but those who expressed their opposition to Manchester Liberalism, to the single unconscionable freedom of free trade and the rapaciousness of their employers, through aspects of faith, place and community.

The author mentions the Aliens Act — a brutal, antisemitic piece of anti-immigrant legislation. One is led into an entirely anachronistic conclusion that this was imposed by faraway Tory MPs on our progressive city. In fact, the Act followed a delegation of unionised ‘working men’ from Manchester to their MP in Manchester East, raising what they saw as the undercutting of textile industry rates by immigrant labour. That MP was the Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, the last PM to hold a seat anywhere in the conurbation.

Perhaps the most glaring omission of the broader forces of communitarianism (after missing out the fact that the legendary Ewan MacColl was a folk singer — perhaps an issue of taste) is the complete absence of the Co-operative movement. Founded just to the north of the city in Rochdale and swiftly embedded in Manchester’s heart, it was central to the development of the city, incredibly impactful as an articulation of proletarian self-help and of the peculiarly English socialist accommodation with emergent capital. It has featured as a partner in most of the city’s ventures, including the NOMA development just before the 2008 recession, and most recently with the major Co-op Live development in East Manchester and the Co-op Academies across the city. There are few easier threads one could follow.

These enforced blind spots to what the people of Manchester might actually want create two key problems for the book. The first is a problem of understanding. The constant references to an undefined ‘municipal capitalism’ miss the extent to which Manchester Corporation (and later the Council) was an attempt to control the forces of capital unleashed upon the city within a framework people could understand. The Corporation became the new aristocrat, displacing the sclerotic Norman families — the Mosleys, Wiltons, De Traffords — and taking up their rents and duties, building, owning and running services like the old baron would a village mill, and with a whole army of retainers decked in its livery as it expanded its demesne. This is what allowed it to act at such scale.

Manchester’s recent troubles are not down to its current leaders being less socialist than Abel Heywood’s band of Reform Club freemasons, it’s that the city itself is a beggar prince. Since 1979, its wealth has been ripped from it by successive Westminster administrations that seek to oppose alternative structures of power that may undermine their own ambitions. The compensatory stipend Manchester received from central government was ended by austerity. In awed tones, Roses discusses Manchester Life, the city’s deal with Abu Dhabi, with its £400 million in assets. But it fails to mention that, if given its 2010 budget back, Manchester Council could buy that in cash this year. Indeed, since 2010, the council has seen some £5 billion lost in real terms cuts — enough to build, at a conservative estimate, 25,000 council homes. Money is power.

Yet it goes beyond the money. The lesson of Manchester’s great trauma of 1985 — the collapse of the rate-capping rebellion — was not just that you would get less money from the government, it’s that if you ever did anything at the local level that national government found to their distaste, they would take it off you. Despite a labyrinthine structure, much of the council’s activity is not to do with hiding things from redoubtable citizen-activists (though I’m sure some parties don’t mind the side effect) — it’s about making it incredibly difficult for government to sanction you efficiently. The wider goal of an increase in population and in the economic capability of that population is an attempt to get to a stage where you can sustain at least basic services off your own resources because anything else has been proven unreliable. Again, President Xi would know what he was seeing.

Whose Manchester?

This second problem — courage — is more fundamental. At various points in The Rentier City, the author can clearly identify contradictory, overlapping claims to Manchester, but refuses to work through the actually interesting questions because they may force him to take a side.

A gem in the book is a discussion with Jamil Keating, an Ardwick local. When Keating spoke of feeling ‘invaded’ as he spoke about Ardwick’s transformation, I felt a guttural agreement. My first home was my nana’s council house there, on the Swinton Grove estate. Leaving aside the historical point that the area was originally a rich suburb, there’s a deeper question. Keating’s opposition is to people in now high-rent Ancoats who want to live near the city centre for work and are looking for somewhere they can afford. They are moving to Ardwick and creating sufficient demand that new developments are popping up. Why should current residents of an area get to veto the provision of more housing so that other people can move to and also live in that area?

Rose goes into great detail about how Manchester’s working-class has always been cosmopolitan, and none of us have been here more than five minutes. But if we’re all just citizens of nowhere, then one has no claim to the place and no grounding to object to newer people moving in. Even addressing that point, there’s a further question. Manchester gains 8,000 new residents each year and has a 14,000-strong social housing waiting list backlog. Under the best plans ever devised, material reality means there will be a period of prioritisation for a decade or more. So should local people who have lived in an area for generations be prioritised over, say, refugees, or economic migrants, or indeed anyone for that matter? Why or why not?

There is a similar point on heritage buildings. If the Victorian facades of central Manchester are simply monuments to slavery and the zero-sum accumulation of Empire, as Rose implies elsewhere, then one should surely celebrate their destruction as one might Edward Colston’s statue taking a swim in Bristol Harbour. From that perspective, Richard Leese’s preference for letting the Venetian-pastiche monuments to mill owners collapse to be replaced with Bauhaus architecture looks rather apposite conduct for Leese, that veteran Trotskyist.

And who are the people in those shiny new towers? Are they Manchester’s new workers, asset-poor renters seeking the embrace of a city where they can be themselves? Then why do you object to building accommodation for them? Or are they the professional managerial class settlers sneering over their £5 tumeric macha? In which case, why on earth did you want to spend £75m giving them a park?

These questions go unanswered. But perhaps this is because when Rose does attempt to rationalise, the results are worse. At one point, the book claims that these supposed ‘new clearances’ might bring to mind what happened in the post-war era. Incredibly, his response is to exculpate the overseers of the post-war slum clearances — far bigger and more brutal than anything happening in Manchester today — with the idea that because the homes built were council-owned and built in the name of the working class, it is okay. We end in the bizarre position that ripping apart communities and landlordism are acceptable as long as the landlord is the council and the housing committee head is a shop steward.

There have been a recent surge in books looking at Manchester, ranging from the journalistic to the scholarly; they are both welcome and necessary. But given the sheer scope of the subject, they need tight focus or clear messaging to not get lost. The motto of the oldest school in Manchester is, ‘sapere aude’. A rough translation would be, ‘dare to know’. This book does not know. It doesn’t dare to.