Saturday, March 26, 2016

The second Marple Spring? High hopes for the Neighbourhood Plan.

Whenever I hear talk of a new politics, a more inclusive democracy or the wider participation of the public in decision making, I visualise Marple. Not because I can't see beyond the place I've called home for the last decade, but because it's almost a living social laboratory for a practical way of delivering what is in effect a theory of community and social organisation.

Over the last few weeks a keen group has built on years of careful thinking to lay the foundations of a Neighbourhood Plan for Marple and I've been delighted to play my own part by chairing the meetings with community organisations and an open and packed public meeting at Marple Library.

Under the terms of the Localism Act, a parish council can formulate a Neighbourhood Plan. This trumps what the local authority may want to do for an area. There is no parish council here, so the other route is through a specially formed Neighbourhood Forum.

I genuinely haven't formed a firm view on where this is heading, though I support the moves towards a Neighbourhood Plan in principle. Here then are some thoughts on whether this can work or not. Many of which I shared at the public meeting as provocations.

1. The Devo crux. Devolution to a Greater Manchester level provides an acute challenge to communities such as Marple. The targets for new homes won't be met just by building on former industrial brownfield sites. Embedded in these agreements is control over where house building takes place. It's important houses are built, the issue is where. Not many parts of GM have the Green belt which developers covet and where communities misunderstand how to build a cases to protect it.

2. A NIMBYs charter. There will have been people interested in the Plan who want to stop any house building at all. Either to raise their own house prices, or just because they want to preserve what they think Marple is. I'll be blunt. That can't happen. It isn't a matter of if, but where.

3. The boundary. The Plan covers the centre of Marple, but stops short of including Strines, High Lane, Marple Bridge, Compstall and Mellor. If not more houses in Marple, then the fields between Hawk Green and High Lane and all along the Windlehurst bends could be built up like Bosden Farm has been, effectively as an infill between Offerton and Hazel Grove. Wherever you draw the line, the risk increases that you create the blockages in one place, only to make it someone else's problem. 

4. Town Teams and Business Improvement Districts. For me, this is a continuation of the Marple Spring of 2012, when Asda and the College sneaked a plan through, the public rose up and beat it back. Noticably absent from this has been the groups of local businesses who clubbed together then. That could and should happen again, this has to be a wider vision for Marple and what kind of place it can be.  

5. Planning is about more than building and houses. Services, schools, nurseries, transport and creating an environment where ideas and businesses flourish in a sustainable way. Planning gain can accrue real social dividends out of the deals that developers will have to strike.

6. Local democracy is dying. I could point to plenty of councillors on Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, and therefore probably on every other local authority in the country, who are virtually unemployable in the real world. The money they earn isn't great, but it is enough to support the very time servers you would prefer not to be involved. Many effective local authorities are run by all-powerful officials. There's a veneer of accountability and scrutiny, but skilled professionals in local government can run rings around elected members. In turn their own power is waning, despite devolution, their tax base is minuscule and the budgets to deliver what services they have are repeatedly cut to the bone.

7. ...But it's still democratic. There was an audible burst of approval during the meetings at any expression of dislike or disapproval for councillors and the council. The anti-politics mood has long been a feature of Marple life. Beware of what you wish for. Unelected committees of 21, however well-intentioned, are still part of the other. You join it and you become the hated "they". It is a one-way ticket to unpopularity and lacks the safeguards to call it to account. As G K Chesterton wrote: "I've searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees." Ultimately it needs a local electoral element to keep a check and balance. 

8. It's not about a mass movement either. Ever since Manchester University student union elections in 1986 when an anarchist student pulled me on my dogmatic use of terms like "rank and file" and "mass movement" I've rather bristled at political dog whistle cliches. Now they appear to be back in vogue, replacing electoral politics with what Stella Creasy called "meetings and moralising" where self-appointed campaigns claim to speak for the people. Yet it remains a truism that in every council ward in every corner of England there are still about 100 people who provide the social and organisational glue to make things happen. 

9. The death of politics and the birth of iDemocracy. I enjoyed Douglas Carswell's book about how open source politics is changing how the public interact with government, but if anything the recent events have proved another old maxim, power is ultimately wielded by people who are prepared to turn up to stuff. Petitions and social media campaigns create an expectation that your viewpoint means something and will make a difference. It won't, unless it is in alignment with sufficient numbers of others who feel the same way. People who don't get their way will say they are excluded. Others will seek a hearing and a voice, as of right. But they still ultimately won't get what they think they want. That's what rule by the majority does. 

10. Communications will be everything. In the olden days, putting a notice in the local paper was an extension of the Town Cryer announcing news. Now of course we have local web sites. Sadly, this won't cut it any more either. Neither will a reliance on social media, a website, or posters. A sustained, multi-channel, relentless and tireless drumbeat of messages across every route and via that most trusted of channels - people talking to one another about what matters to them - will be key. And that's the clincher. It has to matter enough to people to ensure they do that. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

On the match with the Cod Army at Fleetwood Town

Me, Andrew, Paul and Ian join the Cod Army
It wouldn't have been right to have prawn sandwiches in the posh seats at Fleetwood, so we did what the locals do and had cod. If you'd said to me 15 years ago that I'd be notching off my 70th football ground of the current 92 at Fleetwood I'd have laughed. But here we were. On the way we passed what could be ground number 80 of the 92 as we looked at AFC Fylde's ground taking shape. Another disgruntled Blackpool supporting business man who has decided to back a different club on the Fylde after being snubbed by the hated Oyston family.

The ground is decent. The stand we were in is impressive from the inside and out. A towering view from the front row isn't for anyone with vertigo. The rest of the ground is a standard upmarket lower league set up - seats along the sides and terraces at either end.

The match itself was good. Fleetwood played a classy passing game throughout, resisting all temptation to hoof it. Midfielder Eggert Jonsson was a standout in the first half. Walsall soaked up the pressure and were always going to hold on to their lead once they nicked it, though Andy Cole's son Devante came close near the end. There's a link to a match report here.

So that was the 70th of the current 92 and the 143rd ground worldwide I've watched football on and I'm up to 81 in the Punk 92.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Made in Blackburn - I'm backing this Kickstarter campaign for Northern fashion, jobs and pride

In the week I've restocked Northern Monkeys - the epic anthology of the history of Northern working class fashion, I've also backed a Kickstarter project called Community Clothing, aiming to support the creation and manufacture of fashion staples in Lancashire.

Designer Patrick Grant has responded to the plight of one of his suppliers - Cookson and Clegg in Blackburn - by raising £75,000 for future orders of classic jeans, jackets and raincoats. I love each piece, especially so for what the project represents.

So much of the garment manufacturing business is seasonal, while there's a consistent demand for staple basics. The project aims to fill the capacity at the factory during the quiet times with production of these pieces of beauty and simplicity.

It didn't surprise me to learn that the factory produces clothing for my favourite British label Albam Clothing. But these will bear the label Made in Blackburn. How good is that?

It's had great coverage in the fashion press, including Monocle, and the London Evening Standard.

There are only 8 days to go and the campaign is nearly there.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Evolving Manchester video - the start of everything

Video interviews with random but amazing people next to the statues in Albert Square Manchester on February the 29th 2016. First shown at the Pro Manchester Great Manchester Business Conference on March the 4th at the Hilton Hotel. Videography by Michael Simensky at the Centre for Enterprise at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Staying sane on the morning commute

I've had official scientific validation that my morning grumpiness on the commute into Manchester isn't my fault. No, it's not Northern Rail's fault, or my fellow human beings, or the weather. It also explains the almost involuntarily draw towards Rose Hill station, rather than Marple. It's due to my neurological wiring.

I read this piece by Dean Burnett, author of The Idiot Brain, on why commuting is turning you into a bastard.

"The big problem for the brain while commuting is that you’re totally restricted – you can’t change anything. You’re also unstimulated as the journey’s repetitive and monotonous, and you’re trapped in a vehicle. And so, because your brain has no expectation of action, it shuts down. This is why you do stupid things like forgetting to get your ticket out before reaching the gates."

Two months back into the new routine and this all makes astonishing sense.

My ideal commute is a genteel and well timed drive to Rose Hill station. Park up, collect the Metro, sit in forward facing window seat, preference is for a plastic headrest as opposed to metal bus seats, plug in a podcast - New Statesman, Spectator, Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, Thinking Allowed, Media Show or The Bottom Line.

While listening to this I do the easy sudoku by the time we get to Romiley, the moderate before Hyde Central, and the fiendish by the time we roll into Piccadilly. If I don't, then I don't.

There are a number of things that can throw me off that routine that have a massively destabilising effect on the rest of the morning. Traffic in Marple can be periodically horrible and I miss the train and have to go to Marple station instead where there are more trains. This is when I remember why I don't use Marple any more. There are simply too many traps: no parking spaces, it can be busy crossing the road, there may be ticket inspectors, then there's the sharp elbows required to get on the train, which may or may not have enough carriages for the sheer number of commuters on the platform. Getting a seat is then a battle.

There can be train delays, but once I'm in my hermetically sealed hunch I barely notice the rest of the invariable factors (other passengers). I also forget something virtually every day. As long as it isn't my phone, earphones, a pen or my Travelcard then the commute is OK.

So here's another thing. Rose Hill fellow commuters are friends, fellows, companions. We are the pioneers, those at the start. Marple commuters are your rivals - for a seat, for space. Then there are the New Mills lot who've already taken their seats further down the line and earlier. Rose Hill stationmaster Tony Tweedie is your friend, welcoming you. The Marple staff are no less friendly, but less well known, less accessible, the relationship is more transactional.

The green shoots of spring will usher in an added dimension - the bike. But for now it's a matter of getting through these first world problems.