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.

Hopeful Towns – regeneration beyond the city centres – let’s start with an art cafe

Towns, especially in the North, need to feel hopeful places. How can we make this happen?

Urban regeneration has become something odd in recent years, so currently it is absolutely about residential property, land values, and buy-to-rent or buy-to-leave capital investments.

And the so-called Industrial Towns have been hit hardest, now too often post-industrial towns, declining High Streets, closing libraries, public services under constant strain, the public realm a mash of litter, pot-holes, and make-do patches, buses once every two hours, nothing much after 7pm, and costing almost as much as a taxi.

The ideas coming out of the USA to counter austerity *and* climate breakdown focus on a Green New Deal. In the UK there is interest in this approach from some backbench Labour MPs and in the Green party.

The north of England has got in name a Northern Powerhouse, but without funds and without legal powers. An obvious early project would be railway electrification. Jobs and climate breakdown. Just stand at Victoria station in Manchester or New Street in Birmingham and try and breathe – this is how ridiculous we have become.

But even with top-down funding and powers, there is essential work that must be done bottom-up, with communities, and in places where international capital isn’t “investing” or sucking the money out.

For example, every town should have an art cafe. Probably next door to its youth centre. And a theatre space, probably flexibly designed for functions and civic events. In short, a “scene” which doesn’t see every likely 18-year old heading off to the nearest city for anything exciting or rewarding.

Funds will be needed, but we also need ideas and ambition to build hopeful towns.

BROKEN PROMISES: looking back on ‘Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People,’ the Lorraine Gradwell Memorial Lecture given by Dr Jenny Morris

Friday 8 March 2019

Manchester, UK

(Film of the lecture to follow shortly)

Transcript of Lecture here in Word and in PDF:

Thanks all.

To fix Brexit, the Labour party needs to be the government we don’t have

In short, the Government stopped functioning two years ago, and Parliament has now reached a voting deadlock.

The main parties themselves could be next in the line of dominoes to fall, because the party whips are almost all but irrelevant now and ignored with impunity.

We are in a far-reaching constitutional crisis, and those organisations that thrive on chaos and noise, including some shallow media, are loving it. For real people and communities it is horrendous.

There is a saying: we need to become the change we want to see happen. This is now the position the Labour party finds itself in.

So, some suggestions for the Government we need, if not the Government we have.

1. Talk to people honestly; listen and understand their emotions. Key points: “The referendum was run illegally, as well as on lies.” and “Both sides made huge mistakes: Remain had no plan B, and Leave broke the election rules.”

2. We need to hold a fair and legal vote this time, with real, worked-out options for each choice in the vote. No-one is a bad person because of the way they will vote, or did vote. Probably most votes were emotional, not rational, but strong feelings deserve as much human respect as we give for smart thinking.

3. We need a healing or recovery plan for after any Brexit vote, whatever the outcome. “Winner takes all” thinking will not heal communities.

Therefore the historic role of the Labour party in this crisis is essentially to be “progressively patriotic” by holding the ring for the UK while the deep bleeding wounds are closed, stitched, and start to heal. There will be a scar for history to learn from. But better a visible scar than a deadly blood loss.

This is a revolutionary time, UK style.

In the Brexit debacle, can journalism heal the country?

So, for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume we have reached ‘Peak Brexit’ and we’re heading steadily towards a second referendum / people’s vote or similar. We’re definitively not there yet, but let’s assume the troops are in position, they have their battle orders, and just need to keep disciplined, follow the plan and take the hill.

Then what?

Because the one thing the government (or what little is left) has got right is that at least some of the people who voted in 2016 for leave will feel betrayed. And it’s worth repeating that it does not help us if people who voted Remain just running around saying leave-votes are ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant’ or ‘racist’ or ‘left behind’.

There was an interview a few days ago on BBC News 24 where the male anchor journalist was interviewing a woman by video link, she being for remain from a business perspective. He was hostile with her in the Radio 4 Today programme style of shouting come-of-it as if it is journalism, and she kept answering his belligerent questions in a cool and factual manner. So her microphone was muted while she was still speaking and he talked over her. Maybe it was just a bad day, because he later moved on a picked a fight with the weather presenter.

This type of ‘journalism’ will do further damage. It’s all too lazy to go with camera to a small market town and find the most annoyed old man on the street for a rant and rave. An easy piece to file, but it tells us nothing new and helps no-one.

There has been some very good journalism on Brexit, probably all in the ‘investigative’ box – from illegal over-spending to foreign financing to fake social media posts to insider dealing – these revelations have peeled open the layers of deceptions.

Some of the leave people, both as politicians and ordinary people, are implacable. The dogma cuts deep within families as well as communities and political parties. For some this is their adult life’s work, so the idea that they will be won over by a new poll result or a new legal clause is not realistic.

But the spectrum of reasons that people had for voting leave in 2016 includes austerity, inequality, London centralism, unemployment, migration and more.

So, perhaps a starting point is for journalism (because parties are failing here) to explore the potential for common ground within these reasons between leave and remain.

And maybe one starting point is for the remain ‘camp’ to be humble and open minded. One point of contact in making common ground might be in starting discussions on the weaknesses of the EU as it is today. The remain ‘camp’ has been reluctant to have this conversation because it could undermine the campaign. And yes, sure, the die-hard Brexiteer extremists will lap up every morsel and shout it back to the world. But let’s just assume that intelligent journalism has kicked in and we’ve moved on from Nigel Farage getting his thirty-plus slots on Question Time because he is a good shouter.

So, what might intelligent journalism cover? Some suggestions:

· On the economic departments within the European Commission behaving as though people don’t matter as much as money does. These offices seem to be just a colonial outpost of KPMG or McKinsey. Look at the debacle over breaking up the Royal Bank of Scotland with the now-abandoned spin-out of Williams and Glyn’s, leaving 30-mile-wide circles across cities with no branches, all because of an economic dogma.

· On neoliberalism becoming the ‘common sense’ of some parts of the EU, which is where the debates on State Aid restrictions need to be liberated from squabbling lawyers and brought into popular conversations with balanced options for improvements.

· On how the EU can support democracy as an international effort between peoples supporting each other, whether Hungary or Poland or wherever, without always deferring to member state governments.

· On how to open the Council of Ministers to more democratic scrutiny, instead of it being a cosy club for governments to do what they wish.

I hope this helps towards the next conversations between those who will talk, both leave and remain.

Could this be ‘Peak Brexit’?

Anything written about Brexit at the moment risks having a shelf life of no more than 20 minutes before the next twist or turn baffles us even more.

But … could the vote of (some) confidence in the Prime Minister by her party’s MPs mark a turning point? Peak Brexit, so to speak.

Because the Brexit extremists have tried and failed in this battle.

And if the first rule of politics is that, you have to be able to count; then the second rule perhaps is – you have to be able to persuade. The raw maths haven’t changed, and the House of Commons is still deadlocked, but maybe the wind is now out of the sails of the Brexit extremists.

So, now we seize the day and it is onwards to a Remain outcome from a People’s Vote.

Not least with the lies told previously about the NHS; and the hiding of the dodgy money slushing around fringe Leave campaigns that funded the social media lies and racism such as about Turkish membership.