Monday, 31 August 2009

Tweedledum and Tweedledee

There is a consultation / vote going on in Manchester regarding whether or not we have an elected mayor. In the light of low turnouts in local elections, the Government in its wisdom decided that what we needed was more ‘personality’ politics and ‘American-style’ elected mayors, (actually elected mayors could equally well be described as ‘European-style’ but our slavish obeisance of all things from across the pond wins out as usual).

It is now the City of Manchester’s turn to consult on whether we have a ‘Council Leader and an Executive’ or an ‘Elected Mayor and an Executive’; in some ways a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee – any more radical or different ideas are decreed as impermissible. It apparently comes down to whether you want someone like Richard Leese or someone like Terry Christian

The current City Council’s blurb on the consultation makes it clear they prefer the no-mayor status quo, (itself a temptation to vote for a mayor). The nature of the ‘vote’ as well leaves much to be desired – we received one voting slip for our household, for 2 present voting adults.

Some people may think this is an equivalent of the London Mayor – nothing could be further from the truth. In London the Mayor covers the whole conurbation of Greater London, and has a democratically-elected Assembly to provide checks and balances at that level. It would make some sense to replicate this in Greater Manchester, a conurbation of 10 local authorities with boundaries which cut across physical and social lines which is arguably second only to London in size in this country.

My use of ‘democratically-elected’ with Assembly was deliberate. The London Assembly is elected by a form of proportional representation, unlike Manchester City Council or indeed any other local authority in England. I’ve already mentioned the need for fair votes in a recent blog.

As in London a range of functions are administered at conurbation level from transport to waste to police, and of course Greater Manchester did have an elected authority until Thatcher abolished it in the 80s. My daily journey to work runs close to the Manchester – Trafford border, and no outside could tell which block of flats sat in which borough.
In addition to the above, responsibilities for tackling climate change are likely to pass up to the conurbation level, increasing the need for some sort of accountability at that level (at the moment the group of 10 authorities operate under the sinister-sounding acronym of AGMA).

However on that last climate change point, unless we get some serious commitment to tackle the problem, minor tinkering with the structure of the City Council will be no more effective than rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Manchester Pioneers

It is 50 years ago today that the Manchester Guardian ceased and became another London-based paper. Manchester nowadays seems to be regarded by the rest of the world as a provincial city with nothing to commend it except rich/famous football team(s) and occasional music trends. As the world’s first industrial city it should be more famous and respected than it is. For over 200 years it has produced pioneers in a range of fields:

For instance, without Manchester I might still be writing this on an old-fashioned typewriter. This was one of the key places in the development of the computer both via the Mark 1 ‘Baby’ and via Alan Turing who spent his latter years in the city.

Politically it has played a key role in radical movements across the political spectrum: Communism, Feminism, Free Trade and Zionism for starters – for more detail see here. Less well known is its role in African history of the last century see here

In the field of science and technology, Manchester has played a key role in several developments with particular resonance for Greens, in both a positive and negative way.
For instance, no-one could deny that energy is an important subject; and what is the international unit of energy? – the Joule, named after nearby Salford’s James Joule

Less positively (for most Greens anyway), the development of nuclear energy (and for that matter weapons) can be traced back to Ernest Rutherford who ‘split the atom’ whilst chair of physics at Manchester University.
Similarly those of us concerned with the growth of aviation, have to live with the fact that it was John Alcock, born in Seymour Grove Old Trafford, who made the first non-stop transatlantic flight (with navigator Arthur Brown).

Who will be the next Manchester pioneers? At this point in human history, wouldn’t it be great if Manchester led the way in solutions to the problems of climate change, peak oil and economic collapse? The present City Council doesn’t inspire much confidence, but there is a thriving alternative community, and maybe that ‘first city to industrialise’ tag should give us a head start.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Call to real Architects

Although building work has been hit during the recession over the last few months, Manchester’s skyline has been very busy with cranes and new buildings over recent years. Two recent pieces in the online ‘Manchester Confidential’ caught my eye (in between the restaurant reviews) – an interview with Will Allsop on the ‘New Islington project in Ancoats, and a debate on the merits or otherwise of the Beetham Tower

Read through both these pieces and see if you can find any mention of anything to do with ‘energy’ or ‘green’ or ‘climate change’. If so, you are doing better than either me or my computer’s find facility (actually green is mentioned in the Allsop article as one of the fancy colours for the recessed balconies).

This is in a city which apparently wants to be Britain’s greenest. Are the Allsops and the Simpsons (creator of the Beetham monstrosity) aware of this? Or of impending climate change or peak oil in general?. It’s all very well the City Council wanting to put lots of money in reducing the energy footprint of the Town Hall (as promoted in their ‘Call to Action’), but what are they doing to ensure top standards in these new landmark buildings around the city?

Just as Manchester’s buildings are an odd mix of shapes and styles, so are their approaches to energy and environment. On the plus side, the CIS building (Manchester’s tallest until usurped by Beetham) has extensive solar panelling (although I think extending it to a side which gets little sun was going too far). A stone’s throw away the Urbis building has a nice sloping roof – ideal for solar panels - except that it faces north! In the other direction going out of the city is a new complex calling itself the Green Quarter; I managed to find a way in the other day, and sure enough there are some grass and trees, and a nice water-feature, but nothing about the buildings which said ‘Green’ to me.

Regarding our recent ‘award-winners’ the Beetham Tower has made no effort whatsoever in the environment department; indeed according to the Environmental Investigation Agency it is using illegal timber. The curious crest on top rattles in the wind disturbing residents in normal buildings nearby – why not harness that troublesome wind?

Denton Corker Marshall has considered sustainability in the new Law Courts, to be fair, providing natural ventilation to all areas. However, there is still no attempt to harness renewable energy.

The Courts however are a public building, and there are few of these compared with the new residential blocks going up; here New Islington – how pretentious a name is that? – and Allsop’s ‘Chips’ are more the direction we are going.

So a message to architects: you can have your multi-coloured balconies and fancy little features, but please get real to the threats which are going to be facing the inhabitants of those buildings in the years to come, and build for a low-carbon world.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Fridays and 'Sky' days

Apologies for the long gap since my last post – only partly due to a brief holiday in the Asturias region of Northern Spain (reached by surface transport in case you ask!).

I seem to have returned to a flurry of activity on the cycling front. I have posted previously on Manchester’s split personality on the cycling front here
and maybe one of the two events I will describe below is an intention to bridge that gap.

But first things first; for some time now there has been an organised cycle commute from various points in the city on the last Friday of every month known as Critical Commute’ (the Critical being taken from the spikier Critical Mass which has a longer and wider pedigree). I have partaken on a number of occasions, although my more usual means of commuting is by bus. Numbers were getting fairly thin on the ground, which may be why the organisers (Friends of the earth/ loveyourbike) have amended the name to the less opaque ‘Bike Friday’.
This last Friday, 31st July was more widely advertised as a ‘launch’ and that certainly got more people out on the streets (there were about 70 at Albert Square - see photo - and 15 in the convoy from Chorlton alone). So whilst I rather preferred ‘Critical Commute’, if the new branding gets the numbers up that is all to the good.
Any minor quibbles about the name on that event were well eclipsed by my reservations on the name of today’s big cycling event in Manchester – ‘Skyride’ (due to sponsorship from Sky – you know, Murdoch’s lot), organised by British Cycling who are based in the city. From the advance publicity I naively thought that the whole city centre was closed to traffic, for cyclists to enjoy at will. It wasn’t as good as that, but it was good enough to tempt me to join the riders round the route from Albert Square to the velodrome and back. I have to say it look extremely well attended, and it was a pleasant change to cycle along traffic-free roads, especially with large numbers of other cyclists, of all ages. Less pleasant to see the s k y combination on everyone’s hi-vis jackets but that’s another debate.

This is the first of four such ‘Skyrides’ in various cities (Manchester taking the lead as it often does – for good or ill) ; we’ll have to wait until London for it to really make the news.
It will be interesting to see if this leads to any long-term rise in road cycling in Manchester (or indeed if the Bike Friday initiative really takes off). An encouraging sign was the number of families taking part in the Skyride.
However, a one-off event is one thing; what we really need is for people to feel safe cycling in Manchester not just on ‘Sky’ days, or even just on Fridays, but on every day.