Sunday, August 26, 2018

Great start from Blackburn Rovers. Off the pitch, not so good

Des Lynam used to refuse to show the league tables on BBC's Grandstand until 5 games had been played. Given what happened to Blackburn Rovers last season, I've waited until this point in the season before blogging my rash predictions and barely formed observations.

So, five games, fifth in the table, two wins and unbeaten and still in the League Cup. By any measure, that's a great start. You can read Blue Eyed Boy and his loan signing Old Blackburnian for a peerless observation on the start, here. But there's something more.

There's a reason Championship players get loaned out to League One clubs. One of the phrases used in such circumstances is to 'toughen them up' get them game time in a hard physical environment. When it goes well, they return as better players and perform accordingly. Braver, stronger, fitter and with a hunger never to have to go back to all of that.

It feels like the whole club has been on loan and come back so much better. Even the fans seem to be part of that renaissance. It's what led me to make the optimistic prediction on the BRFCS podcast that we'd finish eighth and that Bradley Dack would light up this division.

Denied the magic of Dack for two of the games I've seen, I'm sticking to that. But then without the pace of Armstrong and the determination of Samuel to make the best of his opportunity, our expectations were pretty low for the visit of Brentford, a side beloved of footballing purists.

Tony Mowbray studies the opposition carefully. At times last season I was critical of the excess of respect I thought he showed to visiting teams. But his change of gameplan for the visit of Brentford paid off. Kevin Gallagher on BBC Radio Lancashire called it winning ugly. I don't. I call it winning effectively. I don't regard tracking back 50 yards, fierce tackling and pressing the goalkeeper as ugly. Mowbray's too much of a gentleman to say it in public, but I'd be pretty sure he told his charges that Brentford were a decent footballing side, but they don't like it up 'em. They were the softest team we've played in ages. The fact they conceded free kicks and got the only yellow card of the game was for frustrated niggling acts of cowardly shithousery, because they knew they were no physical match for Evans, Smallwood, Bennett and the massively impressive Rothwell.

And the fans, going in 2-0 down against Reading? Applause and patience. And at the final whistle after the draws with Millwall and Reading? Acknowledgement of decent performances.

The summer signings seem good, especially Rothwell who I really like. I wasn't thrilled at the recruitment of Jack Rodwell, and not just because I'm going to get them mixed up, but because of the bad taste of what happened at Sunderland. The manager cherishes the positive balance in the dressing room, hopefully he thinks Rodwell will be improved by that and everyone else will benefit as a result. But we're going to have to trust that Mowbray knows what he's doing.

Anyway, so far so good, but I didn't start blogging just to say how great everything is. I'm not happy about a few other developments at Ewood in the close season.

We are a ridiculously leaky club. Mowbray is annoyed at this. And it possibly contributes to deals falling over and prices going up.

The transfer business always seems too close to the wire.

I don't really like the pale blue kit.

I don't like that the half time scoreboard and announcer named two teams in our division as Sheffield and Sheffield. Sloppy.

I don't like being sponsored by a betting company.

I really disliked the dazzling bright LED advertising board, especially as it was punting yet more betting.

And the rest of the static ads, more betting, more junk food and, inexplicably, a vaping company.

Who do the commercial staff talk to? Do they just walk down a run down high street and seek out all those tatty peddlers of crap that contribute to the blight of modern life and the poor health outcomes it encourages.

Why not partnership with Community Clothing? Why haven't bridges been built with WEC? or Crown Paints? or Blackburn's wider efforts at civic renewal, instead of taking money from those who so cynically extract it from the pockets of those who can least afford it?

But, overall, this has been a great start and it's terrific to have adapted to life back in the Championship with less pain than we seemed to have adjusted to League One this time last year. What a difference a year makes.


Monday, August 20, 2018

Wanted: big ideas for troubled times

While Brexit has been the all absorbing policy challenge that seems to have proved too much for the very people who campaigned for it, for the rest of us, life goes on.

In pursuit of this, the third edition of our magazine of ideas and provocation has rolled off the presses in time for the new term and the party conference season.

Usually this is a time where fresh ideas are debated and new policies get an airing. We can but hope this time, but the chances are it'll be more fractious back-biting.

When I joined Manchester Metropolitan University I was keen for the MetroPolis think-tank to project good work as effectively as possible. One way of doing that is to find a platform to shout about our achievements. I still think a well-designed magazine is a great way to do that.

The magazine, featuring Trump, first confronted the notion that truth and evidence was whatever suited you. the second, with crayons, that a visionary politician was drawing the outline, but there's an opportunity to colour the detail.  The third was imbued with the spirit of Emmeline Pankurst, who worked in the building where MetroPolis is based.

Putting this third edition together was a real eye-opener and a reminder of what the team have achieved in a short time. Seminars with MPs of the calibre of Liz Kendall, Angela Rayner, Jim McMahon, Jake Berry and Mike Kane. It's all here. Our first The Challenge Of… lecture series,  where Sir Andrew Cahn forecast that the United Kingdom will be asking for a pick and mix approach in the final deal separating out issues like fishing, aviation and financial services that would be unlikely to commend itself to our negotiating partners.

But also in a year of milestones there are frequent reminders of the profound social shifts taking place all around us. Take the upheaval on Britain’s High Streets, where pubs and shops are closing at a time when demand for land for housing and for social spaces is growing. Or the 70th anniversary of the formation of the NHS, where a system designed for one era is struggling to resource itself and organise itself in an era of wider public knowledge, experience of conditions and the very fact that people live longer. Or the centenary of women achieving the vote.

There will soon be a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in the centre of Manchester, just a short walk to the site of the Peterloo massacre. Remembering these dates and everything they represent is enormously important, but even more vital is the challenge we all face to do things in a more inclusive, open and participatory way. There’s a huge sensitivity for policy makers to address people’s lives as they are lived, where they are lived and not directed as a social solution for the activists and campaigners. Devolution presents the opportunity to do something other than create more "layers of they".

We hope this magazine provides some stimulus and a showcase of the work we’re involved in and are very excited by. Drop me a message if you'd like to talk about what we do, see a magazine, or come to one of our future events.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

A holiday in Estonia - where people dress in black

I don't think I've sat in a political conference before, enjoyed listening to a speaker and thought 'I'd like to go there on holiday'. But it was listening to Arto Aas, an Estonian MP and former minister, that sparked a real interest in the former Soviet state.

Arto was speaking at Andy Burnham's Digital Summit in Manchester last December, a really stimulating conference full of ideas and smart thinkers. A local Manchester perspective from Chris Maguire is here, and a more political take on it is here, from Richard Angell. Both convey very well the energy generated by his talk and huge interest in Estonia that Arto sparked.

It was good to get a perspective from someone from somewhere with such ambition. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Estonia has forged a completely new identity, joining the European Union and NATO, building stronger links with the Nordic countries and making a giant leap forward towards being a modern digital state.

I had a vague idea I'd be able to replicate our tour of western European cities last summer, by zipping through the Baltic states. Unfortunately it isn't as simple as that, as Matthew Engel explained in his Estonian odyssey as part of his excellent tour of Europe series for the New Statesman. The trains between the Baltic states are still Soviet-era, and the flights from the North of England are pretty much non-existent. If you think about it, there are vanishingly few reasons to do so: Tallinn has taken itself off the stag circuit and precious few Estonians have sought the path to a 'better life' in Britain. Instead we flew to Helsinki - itself a great city to visit and spend a day or two - then caught a ferry across the Baltic. It was all pretty seamless, technically and culturally, the people looked similar and had a cool and precise aura. I’ve thought that too when I’ve met visiting delegations of FinTech specialists from Nordic countries in Manchester. I can tell the Finns and Estonians from the Swedes and Danes. And between the cities, there was less of a difference the two than between ,say, Manchester and Edinburgh, or London.

Flaneuring around the old part of Tallinn was great. There were loads of groovy coffee shops, quirky museums and cute squares to hang out in. I was gutted the Museum of the Occupations was closed for refurbishment when we were there, and it’s almost a reason to return another time. The national museum of Estonia placed it all in a long context, but the former KGB cells were a brutal reminder of how much Estonia's history is tortured and steeped in suffering.Yet the character of confidence and fierce pride now is all the more remarkable.

For me the highlight was the Telleskivi part of the city (pictured), a collection of refurbished warehouses and railways sheds, populated with food stalls, a market and funky offices for tech start-ups. It was like Manchester’s Sharp Project, with a Borough Market and an Affleck’s. But the vibe had something more than just a hipster hangout; Estonia is also a deadly serious place for business. Skype was invented there and the profits from the sale invested in Estonia’s latent venture capital industry.

Culturally, we saw the spaces where the Estonians love to gather and sing, but not any actual singing. Our time there coincided with the World Cup, so I watched England beat Colombia in a hotel with my non-football supporting son who had more in common with the rest of the residents - marked indifference. So go, take it in. One of most intriguing places I've been to, in turn both inspirational and modest. Not only a brave country with a tough past, but somewhere with such a bold grasp of the future.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

People define places and people value style



This is the video arising out of our recent Vibrant Economy event where we looked at how places can thrive and find new purpose.

My pals at Influential Communications pulled it together and made a very fine job of it.

In this short film some of the participants offer reflections on what they have learnt during their careers in property, retail and academia – led by the entrepreneur Nick Johnson, whose inspired reimagining of Altrincham Market as an independent food and drink destination has won widespread acclaim. In his career Nick Johnson has taught at Yale, chaired Marketing Manchester and served as a commissioner for Chartered Association of Building Engineers. He was a director of the developer Urban Splash for 15 years before taking the plunge with his vision for his home town. What I love is the break with the orthodoxy from Nick Johnson, who I have to say, was absolutely magnificent on the night.

He's been involved two different phases of change in the way the public use buildings and prioritise space - which he talks about in the video. While, the last 20 years have seen a complete transformation of UK regional cities, with decades of industrial decline replaced by flourishing regeneration schemes and booming popularity, there's still a long way to go. Our regional centres have progressed beyond the best hopes of civic leaders in the 1970s and 1980s but many of those mitigating solutions have contributed to new problems.

What Nick has priortised now is shaping places based on how people want to interact. That's the way Altrincham Market and Mackie Mayor market hall are structured. Unreserved seating, everyone piling in together, an open source and uncurated space. And a pleasant place to try new food. I don't wholly buy the argument that he's broken with the past commitment to design excellence. There's an unconscious aesthetic around both places that probably comes from habit on Nick's part as much as anything, and even if you do place people's needs and behaviours at the centre the love of somewhere that feels good helps to build that emotional connection to a place.

All of this is incredibly pertinent to my own home patch of Marple and to Stockport. To Marple, it's about understanding what the people who live there need. While the challenge is to achieve what Altrincham has done, while appreciating the very different set of circumstances and demographic.

Anyway, I'm on the video as well, talking about the view from my window of my old student halls.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

No Good Deed by John Niven reviewed

I can't believe it's been over four years since I last read and reviewed John Niven's Single White Male, his more thoughtful, though no less observant follow up to the debauchery of Kill Your Friends. Such was the familiarity and accessiblity of his writing that it felt like getting back in touch with an old pal.

Well, not quite a reunion with the sting in the tale of his latest book, No Good Deed. Writer Alan Grainger bumps into Craig Carmichael on the streets of Soho. Homeless and hopeless after blowing his success as a rock musician his life is in contrast to Alan, who has done OK for himself in a profession where luck has as much to do with it as talent. Slowly, the hierarchies of their childhood days in Ayrshire emerge, eventually and literally floating to the surface from the deepest wells of a badly cared for septic tank. Close behind is Craig's capacity for destruction, though not just his but that of Alan and all he holds dear.

It's a painful and troubling tale, a reminder why I have a feeling in my own sensitive bowel at the thought of school re-unions, but also feel extremely blessed to have the friends I have.

I've had my Niven itch scratched recently with my belated discovery of Chris Brookmyre. But as I said four years ago, about his last book, this is his best book yet and evidence of a writer getting better and better.