Disabled People and Manchester City Council: on being a critical friend

Sometimes a friend has to tell someone close to them an uncomfortable truth. That truth can be the test of the friendship, and it can also be the making of it, the defining moment when change and renewal becomes possible.

I was struck while in an ordinary meeting of people working in the built environment, where no-one knew my background, that unprompted two people separately said how Manchester has an excellent reputation across the UK for access for older people and disabled people.

For another day we need to make this practice and its history more widely known. An excellent start currently is the mini-series of graphic story-telling magazines produced by young people at the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP) called, The Accessibles.

These graphic magazines acknowledge the work of council officers such as Neville Strowger, as well as the various campaigns by GMCDP and the Access Group. Innovations such as the Local Routes project which started in the housing estates of Wythenshawe in the early 1990s, as well as the first fully-accessible multi-sports stadium and international games in 2002. And especially noting the Design for All programme of policies, training, and informative leaflets.

However, and this is the difficult bit, in recent years we have seen basic level mistakes start to creep back in. The re-paving of Lloyd Street which has created trip hazards with members of the public being injured and now temporary pedestrian barriers in permanent use around hazard areas.

Next, and possible politically worse, is the new design for a monument on the 200-year anniversary of the Peterloo massacre. Approved in a rush in March 2019 and to be built and finished by late July 2019. A monument that is inaccessible to disabled people, who will have a smaller, flat replica nearby, a segregated version of the real one. A segregated monument to the fight for democracy. Oh Manchester! How could you?

How has it come to this? Unfortunately it isn’t a simple matter of not knowing or forgetting. The access consultants gave early advice on Lloyd Street re-paving on how to avoid trip hazards. Similarly, the consultation on the monument design created a lot of adverse comments on the exclusion of disabled people. The written summary of the consultation responses even included a bemused observation by the officials on just how many comments were concerning the access barriers. As if these comments were somehow unwelcome or inappropriate.

So, why is advice bring wilfully and repeatedly ignored?

And this is the tough message, as you would expect from a close friend. Somehow there has developed a ‘we know best’ culture in some areas or teams within the officials. Perhaps it is a sign of how proud they are to work for a council with a strong reputation. The demise of working with the local access group as key advisors is part of the mix. But instead of building on previous gains and relationships, there is instead a perception of arrogance, that the past was flawed, its people mistaken, and all such old ways need to be ignored from now on.

The past wasn’t perfect, by any means. But it was actually better then than now. These basic mistakes were not made when the city centre was redeveloped after the 1996 bomb. Nor when Central Library was first refurbished, the Art Gallery made accessible, John Rylands library opened to disabled people a century after it was built, and the old Town Hall opened up to democratically include disabled people with equal civil rights.

How we get away from a ‘we know best’ culture and move towards a ‘we learn together’ culture is, ultimately, a task for the paid officials to sort out for themselves. But disabled people deserve better than the current back-sliding, and the good reputation and hard work previously won by Manchester learning together is about to slip away on their watch.

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