Monday, May 30, 2022

Why music and football matter

Why do some places have a good feeling about them, while others seem stuck in a cycle of decline? 

I asked this in my column in the Tameside Reporter and Glossop Chronicle this week. And I was also curious as to what music, sport and culture have to do with levelling up of a place? 

The government spent 350 pages of a policy report mulling over this point, before sprinkling on some nonsense about medieval Florence. I wrote about it at the time for Big Issue in the North, and frankly, if anything, I probably overstated how weak the government's commitment was to this agenda.

Yet for people at the coal face of local government, where urban regeneration and business intersect, the work goes on. For the last few months I've been immersed in this world in my work for the Leader of Stockport Council, seeing up close how committed groups of people can achieve positive change often against stacked odds.

What I'm about to say isn't civic boosterism, but it does show the importance of some key 'feel good' elements in how a town can think about the future. As I was writing for the Tameside paper I pointed out how two of the neighbouring boroughs of Tameside have suffered conflicting fortunes in recent weeks, highlighted by their football teams. 

Oldham Athletic have been relegated from the English Football League and into the National League. They also suffered the ignominy of being the first club to have played in the Premier League to then drop out of the 92. 

They have been torn apart by terrible owners and have developed a fractious relationship with their supporters. 

Oldham has been dealt a bad hand lately. Racial tensions have come to the fore again during the local election campaign, where Arooj Shah was the latest leader to lose her seat on the Council after a concerted and highly personalised campaign against her. 

I went to the launch of a review of Oldham’s local economy recently where some home truths were aired. Committed local leaders involved in the Oldham Economic Review Board were honest enough to recognise what Oldham lacked, and some of that came down to a sense of a direction. According to experts from the University of Manchester, two of the important factors in how a town feels about itself are “civic pride” and “social fabric”. The latter feeds the former.

In contrast, Stockport County have won the National League and will be replacing Latics as part of their march back to becoming a proper football club again. They have enjoyed sell-out match days, and it’s no coincidence that the club is run by a local businessman, Mark Stott, who enjoys a good relationship with the Council and the local community. 

In the summer of 2019, a major concert at the Edgeley Park stadium featuring local heroes Blossoms symbolised Stockport’s self-confidence. 

It has a clear identity that is comfortable with its relationship with Manchester - Brooklyn to Manchester’s Manhattan, the council leader Elise Wilson is fond of saying.

I don’t exaggerate when I say that Blossoms have been a major cultural lift for Stockport. The band and their families are even using their cultural power to invest in new ventures in the town, clothes shops, bars, salons, and supporting other bands. It’s all about wanting to put something back into the town that has contributed so much to their own identity; they’re not Blossoms from just outside Manchester, they are Blossoms from Stockport.

Manchester’s onward march as a city attracting businesses and retaining graduates is because of its own rich cultural assets. The city invested in an International Festival precisely to make it culturally attractive and known throughout the world. A rich musical history and two enormous global sporting brands add to the allure.

People cherish things that they have lost in the communities, and can't always understand why they've gone. A flourishing town centre is one, pubs, workplaces, theatres and sports clubs are examples of others. By the way, as well as sporting and musical assets, one of the other things that make people feel good about a place is lively independent media.

For what it's worth, the evidence from what I've seen in my recent deployment in Stockport, and from what I know of the people behind the deep thinking in Oldham, they are making steps in the right direction. But it is against a backdrop of precarious funding, disinformation, government drift and disruptions to local leadership. It's never been more important to hold places together as we step into an uncertain future.

Friday, May 13, 2022

A ray of light in the Dark Peak

Pic: Freshwalks Fresh Futures on Kinder in April this year

Over the last three years I’ve developed a deep spiritual connection with a mountain.

Kinder Scout, the plateau that dominates the Dark Peak to the east of Greater Manchester represents so much of what I have come to believe in; connecting with and respecting nature, the universal opportunity we all have to explore the challenges of the great outdoors, and something uniquely connected to the traditions of the place I call home.

One of my sons lives over the hill in Raworth and when I drive over to see him - or he drives me - we get an incredible view of the plateau in all kinds of light. It’s like being able to view one of your favourite paintings again and again. Even when storm clouds loom over it, or it is enveloped in darkness.

For me, Kinder is also the spiritual home of Freshwalks, the walking community that I was loosely involved in setting up in 2013 and which my friend Michael Di Paola has established as simply the best networking community I’ve ever had the privilege to be involved in.

I adore the Lake District, I am awestruck by the Cairgorms in Scotland, Snowdonia has a magical magnetism. But Kinder and the Dark Peak feel like they are ours. It’s a different emotional connection. 

When walking up it, I love its unpredictability. My friend John and I set off one sunny August morning last year from the car park at Hayfield quarry where there stands a plaque to the heroes of the Kinder trespass in 1932. We were booted up and ready for anything in our walking shorts and also slapped on the factor 30 as the sun shone, imagining a still stroll around its eerie lunar edges. An hour later we were planning a hasty retreat down Williams Clough, soaked to the bone, as lightning crackled in a dark sky and the rains lashed down on us.

By the time we got back to Hayfield it was cracking the flags again, humbled that Kinder had once again laughed at our plans and reminded us how futile it is to speak of ‘conquering’ mountains and hills.

I was at a low ebb at the time. That challenge, the conversations we had up there that day have sustained me for a long time. I think of so many other days, other friends, other conversations, that have had a similar effect. Sometimes about music, by the way.

Shortly after my jaunt with John, my wife Rachel joined a sunset walk which properly gave her the confidence to make profound lifestyle and fitness choices. She’s now edging ahead of me on the leaderboard for miles walked on Freshwalks this year. 

And so to our latest initiative. I volunteered to be a mentor on the Freshwalks Fresh Futures initiative with Manchester City Council’s Our Year programme, to help young people see what I’ve experienced.

As potential mentors we just brought our open hearts, a curiosity and our passion for the outdoors. The young people brought ideas and energy, but also bonded with each other. It’s taken me a lifetime to find this way of recharging and connecting. Hopefully this day has made an early impact on these guys, though some are already well on their way to their Duke of Edinburgh Awards.

So here's to Kinder, whether in the morning sunrise, through hail and wind, or as the sun sets on another day, it truly was worth fighting for.