What kind of a city and region do we want?

Success as building frenzy: the Manchester model

building frenzy

Building frenzy

Someone once told me that for Sir Howard Bernstein, the retiring Chief Executive of Manchester City Council, his measure of success was the number of cranes visible on the city’s skyline. True or not, the anecdote captures something of the official line on the development of Manchester and its region: create conditions for building and the rest will fall into place.

Is that the kind of city and region we want to live in though: one where the strategy is to capture the, often speculative, investment in buildings, on the assumption that economic “growth” will follow, bringing benefits for the population?

We question the assumptions at each stage in that argument. Wise economic development need not rely on capturing inward, and flighty, investment. A shiny built environment does not bring the kind of economy that the city needs: instead the result can be empty office space and inflation of housing costs, bringing a lack of affordable housing and spaces for the kind of small, labour-intensive, low material-throughput business that could spur a resilient economy that shares its wealth while providing needed products and services. And the “growth” that arises (some of which is no more than the rental, and sale and resale of the new buildings) does not “trickle down” but instead, if anything magnifies the inequalities of wealth, income and experience that bedevil our city and region.

The strategy in crisis?

The good news is that the opposition to this flawed model is growing. Planners and activists alike have been surprised by the upsurge of opposition to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s Spatial Framework. That opposition has come from environmentalists, housing activists, policy experts, community groups and from MP’s (with the front-runner in the GM Mayoral contest calling for a radical rewrite), councillors, and at least one council is set to oppose it. The plans to erode the Green Belt have been one much discussed aspect of the opposition, but there has also been criticism of the economic model and of the modelling of demand that underpins it.

Demonstration for Green Belt, 1 April, Manchester town hall.Other plans have also run into storms. The Combined Authority made substantial loans to developers to build flats on Pomona Island, an area of abandoned former dock and industrial landscape between the Irwell and the Bridgewater canal that had reverted to green cover with wildlife finding it a haven. Rather than capitalising on the green space and creating a much needed eco-park, potentially with some affordable rented accommodation, the conditions on affordability were waived and the building is going ahead. There was a campaign, but it didn’t get quite the traction it needed. Nevertheless, it served to rehearse the arguments against the standard policies and practices and their “sweetheart deals”, while raising the question of green space versus building that takes no account of context.

Skyscrapers in the historic centre?

proposed Bootle St towers

The proposed Bootle St twin towers. From the planning application. Click for video.

Close to what is now being called the “civic centre” (i.e. Albert Square and the Town Hall / Central Library area) is a rather run down area stretching to Deansgate. There is a need to improve the area via sensitive development and conservation. What has been proposed (and backed by the council, although some councillors dissent) is the St Michael’s scheme, from “Make Architects”, with investment from two footballers, to knock down the former Bootle St Police Station, the Sir Ralph Abercromby Pub (where Peterloo protesters sought refuge and the injured were tended) and the Reform Synagogue. In their place it is proposed to put two enormous (i.e. totally out of proportion) and ugly tower blocks that would overshadow the said “civic centre” creating a hard, windy area full of luxury flats, premium office space and 5 star hotel rooms (all of which the city is alleged to be short of). A pre-application public consultation found that 70.4 per cent of those consulted were opposed to the plans, yet the revised proposal is little different. Thanks to the efforts of local activists, the plans have been exposed. A petition has so far gathered more than 3,500 signatures. The following bodies have questioned the plans: Historic England, the public body that looks after England’s historic environment; The 20th Century Society which exists to safeguard the heritage of architecture and design in Britain from 1914 onwards; Save Britain’s Heritage and The Victorian Society. As the detailed objection from the campaign group “Manchester Shield” demonstrates, the proposals multiply contravene the city council’s own planning guidance.

Another development of tower blocks (although this time for a more appropriate mix of accommodation) would similarly overshadow Castlefield, the UK’s first designated Urban Heritage Park and a short-listed Unesco World Heritage Site. It has already been approved by the planning committee but also hit problems, with the possibility that the proposal will be called in by the Secretary of State.

A case study: decoding the model

The Bootle St proposal is worth looking at (before objecting). The economic theory is set out thus:

“…. Manchester has developed strongly post-recession and the foundations for further growth are in place. A key success is the increased diversification of the economy with an increasing amount of GDP growth attributable to new economies including Creative and Digital and Advanced Materials. Manchester’s growing reputation in these fields will drive further growth and allow it to establish itself as a hub on a national and international scale. These industries will complement Manchester’s already strong and growing position as a centre for Financial and Professional Services.
“However, there is still a significant amount to be done to support further economic growth within Manchester and to close the significant gap between public spending and tax generated within Greater Manchester which is calculated to be £4.7bn a year. To do this, Manchester City Council needs to ensure that the right development comes forward to support future growth.”

So we have to suffer speculative and ugly skyscraper building in order to pay more tax to central government – the spurious argument about the “fiscal gap” – when we should instead be campaigning for redistribution from the bloated economy of London and the South East.

“The Design and Access Statement and Regeneration Statement explain in detail the need for further offices, hotel, leisure and residential uses within the city centre, and also the opportunity to help meet this need which is presented by the application site. In summary, the proposed development addresses specific, strategically identified needs for:

  • A new Reform Synagogue to replace the present building on the site which is not fit for purpose; [to which the 20th Century Society says The Synagogue was designed by the architects Levy and Cummings and is of particular historic interest as the first new post-war building to be constructed in the city after the Second World War, funded by war reparations. The Synagogue is almost completely intact internally, and notable for some of the earliest examples of figurative stained glass in a Jewish place of worship in the UK. The C20 Society are disappointed to hear that it has been turned down for listing because, as Tess Pinto said, ‘Listing would have given us more influence in the planning process and a stronger voice with which to argue for the retention of this fine building that has so much potential for re-use’.”]

  • New public spaces within the city centre and on the site to create a new destination; [learn the language, “a new destination”]

  • A five star hotel to meet the significant undersupply of five star rooms and facilities in the city; [No, it isn’t for you!]

  • Grade A office space to assist in addressing the current undersupply of the best quality of office space; [Dire warnings that there will be no more office space in the city centre are belied by a simple search for vacant space: there is plenty]

  • Premium quality apartments to meet an identified gap in the market; [Oh really? Again you can whistle for social housing]

  • A new destination within the city to further grow the economy and provide accommodation for
    jobs; [Translation: Yes we have a nervous tic, we aren’t sure about this any more so we repeat the mantra endlessly – it might just work”, like the 10 repetitions of “growth” on the introductory page of the Spatial Framework]

  • A new destination to support tourism, culture, business, the city’s residents and the civic function of the city; [Oh we just said that…. The crowds will flock to see these blocks!]

  • To regenerate an underused site; and [Again, there is no issue with this – the question is how and for what ends]

  • To strengthen linkages between Deansgate and Spinningfields, and the Civic Quarter [Linkages? the streets surely – but maybe make use of the natural slope of the land too?]

So the whole proposal, like others, is based on the same flawed strategy of “build->growth->trickle down” that can be challenged at every point, and has been, for example in this paper from Manchester Business School academics, as well as in our own work.

In the Bootle St case the council itself stands to gain from the deal, as an Evening News article notes:  “Then at a later date the town hall intends to sell it on – at a massive profit, in all likelihood running into the tens of millions – and share the proceeds with GMP.”  So in the context of central government imposed austerity, the council is yet more incentivised to strike deals with what have been called “aggressive” private development plans.

What about housing?

As a critique published in the Guardian notes:

Developments such as St Michael’s [i.e. the Bootle St plan] are designed instead with the transient in mind: the buy-to-let landlords; the high-earning long-distance commuters who need a Monday to Thursday crash pad; and presumably other footballers and their entourages. Prices haven’t been discussed but are rumoured to be “very high-end”.

However, this “high end” emphasis also reflects the dominant economic strategy in the city. By increasing asset prices, and the amount of rent paid, the city’s GVA (a crude measure of the size of the economy) gets inflated – growth achieved! But this is not something that benefits the city or the people living here. This magical economics fails to identify what we actually need the economy to be delivering for the people of Manchester, and indeed, the attraction of high-earning professionals into the city seems to meet what a cynic might see as the undeclared policy of bringing a “better population” into the city because the existing post-industrial masses won’t make the city rich. Hence the emphasis on high rent flats and the marginalisation of social housing? While this is going on there are more than 11,000 empty homes across Greater Manchester. The Combined Authority has made noises about reducing them (and could learning from experience elsewhere), but it does rather appear that the policies are not joined up, in conflict even. The former central government housing market renewal initiative (Pathfinder) did nothing to improve matters – the clue is in its title: the housing crisis is not going to be resolved with yet more market tinkering nor by giving free passage to footloose capital.

There’s more: the high levels of investment in buildings are a consequence of the failed economic system. Declining profitability of industry means capital seeks other avenues to reap profits and hence pursue high “growth”. As the geographer David Harvey has shown, a favourite option is investment in, often speculative, city centre building projects – what he calls the “spatial fix”. Not everyone in leadership positions meekly accepts this as “realism”. In an article last year for New Start magazine, Tom Riordan: CEO, Leeds City Council, for example observes, “Where does money end up in pro-growth agenda? In buildings” and he suggests alternative priorities for addressing inequality and poverty in a city-region not unlike Manchester’s.

What kind of a city region do we really want?

Some cities, like Edinburgh choose a more human scale.

Some cities, like Edinburgh choose a more human scale.

This question needs answering both at a local scale: what might a human scale and environmentally enhancing refurbishment of the Bootle St area look like? – and at the scale of the City Region – what do we want to enhance, build and preserve and how should the landscape of GM be organised? We have been looking at two dimensions of this question, applicable at whatever scale:

Firstly, how might space be best used to make our city more liveable, more resilient, while meeting needs? The Garden City concept, retrofitted to the city region is just one idea that interests us and we’ll be exploring it at our event on 2 March.

Secondly, how can we ensure that the citizens of Greater Manchester can make informed contributions to the design of solutions and contributions that have clout? There are examples to learn from, from places like Curitiba, Barcelona and Freiburg, but adapting them to Manchester, while innovating ourselves, will be a challenge. New policy- and action -research from the University of Sheffield on shared city governance might help too, though the time is now, as the old consensus shudders and a new one strives to come into being.

Mark H Burton

Posted in cities, Greater Manchester City Region, Manchester, Manchester City Council, news | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Greater Manchester Garden City – a viable alternative?

Conversation event:  Greater Manchester Garden City – a viable alternative?

manchester-urban-landscape-037Thursday 2 March, 6.30pm, Methodist Central Hall, Oldham Street, Manchester.   Book via EventBrite
We’ll be showing Tom Bliss’s film that reviewed the Garden City concept and suggested applying it retrospectively to an existing city (Leeds).  We’ll then discuss in relation to creating an alternative vision for the future of the Greater Manchester City Region.
We recently joined other critical voices in responding robustly to the GMCA’s Greater Manchester Spatial Framework that set out a dystopic future of high rise flats and offices in the centre and housing estates and warehouses on the Green Belt, all justified by fantasist “growth” projections.  But what would an alternative look like?  Might it be feasible, for example, to transform the GM City Region into a kind of retrofitted Garden City? We begin that conversation.
Please book here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/greater-manchester-garden-city-a-viable-alternative-tickets-32189825635

Posted in cities, environment, events, key concepts | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Greater Manchester Spatial Framework – our response.

Click for the pdf version of our response

The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework is a “master plan” for the use of land across Greater Manchester for the next 20 years.  Steady State Manchester responds to it here.  While there are some good things in it, we are concerned about its projections of “economic” and population growth and the proposal to reduce Greater Manchester’s green space for further building.  As followers of our work will know, we believe that there has to be a better way of securing the well-being of Greater Manchester’s people.
You can read and comment on the consultation document via the portal, or just email them.
You can see the publicity video here (subtitles available on clicking the cc icon at the bottom of the video window): https://vimeo.com/189629948 (copy and paste that link into your browser).

Make your own response by logging into the portal at the above link, or by emailing or by using Manchester Friends of the Earth’s helpful response portal, here: https://actionnetwork.org/letters/gm-spatial-framework-consultation

Click for the pdf version of our response

(we previously commented on earlier versions)

Steady State Manchester’s Response to the consultation on the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework


Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) consultation.

Steady State Manchester1 welcomes, in principle, the development of a plan that will shape the region’s development over the next 20 years, and address key issues such as health and well-being, inequality and environmental degradation. The focus on wetlands and uplands protection and conservation are particularly welcome. So is the attempt to quantify the requirements for housing and workspaces.

However, we are extremely concerned that the proposals as they stand will fail to improve the well-being of local residents, protect our natural environment, and meet our binding commitments to tackle climate change and poor air quality. We are particularly concerned about the assumptions underpinning the draft, and the quality of the modelling that has informed it.

We draw your attention to the following points and request that they be included and addressed in the next iteration of the Framework.

  1. Growth assumptions

The term “growth” appears ten times on the first page of the consultation document, a level of usage that suggests a degree of over-emphasis, or perhaps such anxious repetition of a magical mantra means there is less confidence about the growth assumptions than might at first appear.

  1. Economic growth

There are two problems with the projected GVA growth rate of 2.5%.

Firstly, in its own terms (that aggregate GVA growth is desirable) it is unrealistic. This figure is 0.2% above AGMA’s own baseline estimate, and there is no transparency as to how the higher figure has been arrived at beyond an “aspiration” for “accelerated growth”. The contributions of several civil society organisations (including SSM) that challenged the growth scenarios in the previous consultation draft, have not been included in the consultation document.

While the consultants used by GMCA are “optimistic” about growth prospects, the OBR November 2016 Economic and Fiscal Outlook2 forecast an average growth rate of 1.86% over the next five years 2017-2021. The Bank of England indicates a lower rate still, “ GDP growth is projected to slow in the near term and remain around 11⁄2% further out”. They also show that the average of other forecasts is well below 2% over the the next three years. These estimates of course factor in the impact of the UK leaving the EU. The GMSF growth estimates need reducing to take into account the impact of “Brexit”. Furthermore, the likelihood of another “Great Financial Crash” is rated as high by those few economists that predicted the 2007 crash. This would again radically reduce the growth forecasts.

Secondly, such rates of growth are undesirable, environmentally, socially and economically. Increased growth of the economy is tied inexorably to the increase in the material flows through the economy: this is a basic scientific law that no amount of wishful thinking can negate. To mitigate the impact of GDP/GVA growth on carbon emissions, for example, would require an emissions reduction rate of between 8 and 10% p.a.3. The rates achieved by advanced economies have been at best 2% p.a. To promote such levels of GVA growth is therefore reckless.

GDP/GVA growth does not necessarily lead to social well-being. This has been the case in the UK since the mid 1960s after which time levels of life satisfaction have not followed increases in the size of the economy. In the case of Greater Manchester, this is hardly surprising. For example, over the last ten years more than 20% of GVA is accounted for by two sectors, sales (including the motor trade)* and real estate (ranking first and third, respectively): these are also the sectors that have shown some of the most the most sustained growth4. It is hardly surprising then that GVA growth does not deliver population well-being if significant components are associated with grid-lock and housing cost inflation. Moreover, GDP growth in recent decades has been associated with large increases in inequality.


Finally, GVA growth will not necessarily deliver jobs, in that increases in profitability and investment lead to reductions in labour intensity: New Economy admits this in relation to manufacturing: a 1.7% growth leading to a reduction of 10,000 jobs5, but the implications are wider given the increasing automation of all sectors which is exacerbated by continual growth.

  1. Jobs and housing growth

Jobs and housing growth predictions rely on a number of assumptions. The population projections use the ONS and DCLG baseline data (2012) but envisage higher migration in the early years: it is unclear why. CPRE has provided an assessment from an independent demographer6 who questions a number of the assumptions, in particular the possibility of double counting migration flows. The predictions also rely on the GVA predictions discussed above, and as noted, these now require downward revision. Moreover, the likely impact of Brexit is to reduce inward migration. As they stand, the population growth envisaged is for a 20 year sustained rate of increase at levels near the astonishing rates of Manchester’s growth in the mid 19th century – not necessarily a good prescription for human well-being.

The Oxford Forecasting model that is used for the jobs forecasts is insufficiently transparent to allow a proper assessment of its modelling of jobs.

As the Economic Evidence Report (New Economy, October, 2016) notes: “OE have reviewed the AGS-2015 scenario and has confirmed that whatever the outcome [of Brexit negotiations], Greater Manchester’s ambition to achieve a high growth future in line with the scenario remains as appropriate and credible now as before the Referendum”. However this statement appears to rely on little more than a survey of businesses in the present period before Brexit occurs.

However, to the extent that jobs forecasts are parasitic on GVA projections, the relationship can be questioned. The correlation for Greater Manchester between GVA and numbers in employment is 0.69 (i.e. no more than 50% of the one variable is accounted for by the other – direction of causality is not obvious), for the largest and for and fastest growing sectors in the GM economy, the relationship is often far weaker7:


Correlation between GVA and jobs (r)


Rank size in 2014

Rank growth since 2008

Wholesale and retail trade; repair of motor vehicles










Real estate activities





Human health and social work activities





Professional, scientific and technical activities





Electricity, gas, steam and air-conditioning supply





Mining and quarrying





Arts, entertainment and recreation





Accommodation and food service activities





As we note above: increased economic growth is not necessarily associated with economic benefits, and this is illustrated here in the case of jobs, potentially putting projections in doubt.

Basing the plan on a lower growth rate would result in lower demand for development, thus reducing pressure on the Green Belt and the environment more widely.

A further question relates to the types of units envisaged:

GMSF envisages an additional 294,800 people living in the conurbation and translates this into 227,000 net new homes. That gives an occupancy rate in the new stock of 1.3 persons per property. As the consultation document notes, that means approx 45% will be single occupancy flats, requiring, among other things, a near doubling of the number of flats in the city centre “new town”. Such a pattern is questionable and an undesirable future for community life in the region, notwithstanding demographic trends away from the four person family unit.

GMSF is in many ways a “developers’ charter” with its emphasis is on new sites, new construction and this is not surprising given the dominant pattern of city-based speculation as a sink for under-utilised capital and corporate profits. From a human point of view it would make far more sense to start from an audit of unused housing and office space with a view to converting the excess of offices to housing and chasing absent landlords who retain empty properties. Only then can adequate estimates of new build requirement be made.

Equally the projections on office space are highly questionable. They rely on the aforementioned GVA projections and assumptions about the mix of sectors in the economy. Yet, just because the last three decades have seen a move towards office-based work patterns, that does not mean the trend is going to persist forever. Technological change will potentially drive a reduction in administrative office jobs, both through automation and through remote and home working. Global supply shocks to the material base of the economy (not least energy) will likely lead to the on-shoring of more production and the increase in manual work as the economy’s energy supplement reduces as fossil fuels are abandoned. It is impossible to predict the relative contributions and time-frames for these factors but scenario development needs to take place so the GMSF has a wider range of possibilities to consider both initially and at regular review.

  1. Carbon reduction and air quality

The GMSF consultation’s carbon reduction target of 60% by 2030 fails to reflect the ambition in the Paris Agreement to aim to keep the rise in global temperatures to below 1.5 degrees. The plan should adopt a science-based target of at least 80% by 2030 should be adopted (noting that the mathematics keep changing such that earlier estimates of the remaining global carbon budget have to be revised downwards – the latest temperature figures indicate a rise already of approx 1.2 degrees).

It is to be noted that in the case of Manchester, the ambition is now for the city to be zero carbon by 20258 and

Analysis by the MACF CO2 Monitoring Group of Manchester’s emissions from a carbon budget perspective shows that we need to make steeper cuts from 2015 to 2020 to stay within our carbon budget. Given we have emitted more than we should between 2005 and 2014 (the area above the target line), we would now need to achieve a 62% reduction by 2020 in order to make up the difference.”9

At GM level, “over the period 2013-2020 emissions needed to fall 4.43mt from 15.43mt to 11mtCO2, over the 7 year period….. [but] at least 0.5 million tonnes of savings [remain] to be identified between now and 2020 beyond the proposed programme, plus additional potential savings to account for short term growth in the population and economy.”10

The point is that Greater Manchester is committed to significant reduction in carbon emissions already but is struggling to meet those expectations, while more demanding targets are indicated by the science. The GMSF needs to reflect this fully.

While we welcome recognition of the contribution of wetland and uplands in the draft framework, these sections are brief and vague, giving little confidence that they are really central to the Framework – the risk is that they will fall by the wayside under the economic pressures. To strengthen the framework there need to be appropriate carbon metrics identified for the carbon transactions in these areas. This needs to be put alongside the same calculations for the present green belt and the impacts of reductions in green area quantified properly. Without doing this the GMCA can not be regarded as serious about climate change and carbon reduction.

The plan does not adequately address the legal requirement to improve air quality across Greater Manchester, and particularly in areas already breaching air pollution limits. There should be a site specific assessment of the plan’s impact on air pollution in existing Air Quality Management Areas.

In order to meet carbon reduction and air quality obligations, no new development should be permitted that would lead to an increase in carbon emissions and/or air pollution. In particular, this means:

  • all new buildings should be zero-carbon with on-site renewable energy generation;

  • there should be no new major road building schemes nor increases in motorway capacity;

  • there should be no new fossil fuel extraction, such as shale gas or coal bed methane;

  • no new energy generation from the combustion of fossil fuels or solid biomass;

  • airport growth must be constrained such that emissions from flights firstly do not exceed current levels, and then reduce.

On this last point, the physical reality is that present levels of aviation cannot continue if we are serious about avoiding runaway climate change. Greater Manchester will eventually have to restrict flights and this is likely to involve closing one of Manchester’s two runways. Therefore Greater Manchester needs to start planning now for an economy that does not depend on aviation revenues, and for alternatives to airport-based infrastructure development in the south of the conurbation.

  1. Green Belt

The above comments on carbon reduction and air quality also apply to the Green Belt. Presentations about the Green Belt have suggested that because Greater Manchester has a higher level of designated Green Belt than other city regions, it can afford to lose some 10%. Moreover, comments made in response to questions at the Manchester consultation indicated that the officers involved were not going to consider revising downwards their proposals to take land out of the Green Belt.

However, the fact that more land is designated Green Belt in Greater Manchester’s surrounds than in certain other areas does not mean that we can afford to lose it. That would imply that land supply is somehow elastic whereas it is strictly finite. That land will still be lost to carbon sequestration, amenity, biodiversity, and potential food production (relevant to GM’s resilience in the face of future global supply chain disruption). Moreover, the material flows involved in converting a land asset into buildings have consequences well beyond GM, not least through the embedded carbon in these developments.

Building new housing developments and warehouses (predominantly) in these areas will also mean transport, utilities (water supply and disposal, power, sewage, waste disposal) and roads as well as schools, shops, community resources. This means a massive increase in GM’s material footprint, much of which will not be measured.

Accordingly we propose that:

  • there should be no development on existing Green Belt land, nor in areas of flood risk;

  • the primary focus of new development should be mixed use and higher density on brownfield sites;

  • all new developments must have access to high-quality walking, cycling and public transport links;

  • all new developments must deliver a net increase in biodiversity, with no net transitional loss;

  • all major developments must provide opportunities for community-owned renewable energy generation;

  • all new housing developments must have a substantial proportion of affordable housing and adequate community resources;

  • existing agricultural land should be protected and all new developments must provide space for food growing.

  1. Biodiversity

There should be a specific section on protecting and increasing the biodiversity of the city region. The many green areas within the city region (additional to Green Belt) are vital resources and there is a need for ecologically informed management of these11.

  1. Food

There should be a separate section on food security for the city region, especially given the proposals for building on Green Belt. This was an issue we raised in the two previous consultations, but there is no trace of this issue in the consultation draft.

  1. Viable Communities and Garden Cities

The model of urban development that emerges from the GMSF draft is problematic12. It envisages a “regional centre” consisting of flats, offices and shops, dormitory suburbs and warehousing and industrial sites on the periphery, in addition to “Gateway” areas with high concentrations of goods in transit. People will often have to travel long distances to work (for example in the city centre). The plans for renewing local towns (or rather their centres) seem like an afterthought, and there is little on the ecological, social and economic renewal of Greater Manchester’s vast swathes of suburbia. Had the Framework started by asking the question, “What makes for a Viable Community13 – socially, environmentally and economically?”, then a very different Framework might have been the result.

The concept of garden cities is a good one that should not apply solely to new build developments on green belt land. The next edition of the GMSF could fruitfully consider how to transform the existing urban landscape into an integrated garden city, building on the region’s current assets and ensuring that people have nature, provision for climate adaptation (through vegetation and water resources) and food production near to their homes and workplaces. More could be made to design out the motor car, reducing traffic risk and hard surfaces (water run-off)14. This seems curiously absent from the strategy.

* An earlier edition wrongly stated that this sector, BIC 2007 code G, just consisted of the motor trade.   Note added 10/2/17

1For information about Steady State Manchester see Appendix.

3Estimate from University of Manchester climate scientists Anderson and Bows: http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1934/20.full.pdf+html

7Own analysis of data from ONS (GVA) and New Economy (employment).

11For the case of Chorlton Meadows and the impact of inappropriate management on biodiversity see Bishop, D Maximising Biodiversity in Greater Manchester: Obstacles and Opportunities https://greatermanchesterenvironmentforum.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/biodiversitymcflymark3-db.pdf

12A point also made by colleagues at University of Manchester Business School: Folkman, P., Froud, J., Johal, S., Tomaney, J., & Williams, K. (2016). Manchester Transformed: Why we need a reset of  city region policy (CRESC  Public Interest  Report) (p. 61). Manchester: Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), University of Manchester. Retrieved from http://www.cresc.ac.uk/medialibrary/research/ManchesterTransformed.pdf

Posted in economics, Greater Manchester City Region, housing, Manchester | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

So what would we do? Towards an alternative strategy for the city region


Download the Working Paper here

It is easy to be critical. We are critical of the way our city and regional leaders have generally tackled the difficult problem of economic, social and environmental viability. We see their approach as based on a fundamentally flawed model that puts the economy first and attempts to restore economic growth to our post-industrial city region in the context of a competitive global order. No doubt this is motivated by concern for the people of the city region, their livelihoods and the future of them and their children, but we question whether the strategies will lead to improvements in overall social, economic and environmental well-being.

So what would you do? What options would you back? What priorities would you set?”. These are fair questions. Previously we have set out ideas but we must admit that it is not easy to produce an alternative analysis and strategy that is coherent, convincing, realistic and practical. Well, someone has to do it, and this SSM Working Paper from Mark Burton tries to do just that.

First it defines the problem, because the way the problem is defined sets the path for any solutions – get that wrong and it is hard to turn off and find the right direction. Then it looks at some of the approaches on offer: the official Treasury/Greater Manchester Combined Authority model, the same model with some tweaks for inclusion and environmental benefit, and the radical reformist approaches of CRESC and CLES. Finally, it makes a selection from those ideas and adds other themes and proposals that those frameworks are missing. The idea is to sketch out the basis for a more convincing alternative strategic approach to economy, society and environment, a deepening of our work on The Viable Economy. Download the Working Paper here.

This paper is about Greater Manchester (and is relevant to GMCA’s “strategy refresh” and to the Greater Manchester People’s Plan initiative), but the thinking should also be relevant to many other city regions.

As a Working Paper this does not represent the fully considered position of Steady State Manchester but we will draw on it in writing a policy pamphlet in the weeks to come. We really would like your reactions, suggestions, counter-arguments and refinements. You can use this link or email the address on our contact page.

Download the Working Paper here.

Related interest: a short reading list of critical resources on city-regional and other localised economies.

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Lively cafe conversation

Steady State Manchester (SSM) welcomed many new faces to a lively and exciting  conversation on 20th October: ‘Climate change is an emergency: what do we know about the best way of influencing decision makers?’ It was a hopeful and inspiring evening. Our next café conversation will be on Monday 21st November for SSM members to influence our strategy for 2017.  If you are not a member and would like to come, join now. Continue reading

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STEADYSTATE Part Two: The Local and Regional Context

This is the second part of our interview piece  in Manchester’s Now Then magazine.
Click HERE to read the interview.  Thanks to Ian Pennington at Now Then for inviting us and publishing our thoughts.  NowThen

The first part, on the wider context appeared here: STEADY STATE Part One: The National and International Context

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Manchester’s climate change consultation for 2016-2050

Commentary on “Ahead of the Curve” Manchester’s climate change consultation for 2016-2050

pdf version of this article

This consultation closes on Sunday 16th October. Make your comments on it by clicking HERE.

  • A little context.

Manchester has had a climate change strategy since 2010: Manchester a Certain Future. The city council saw the need for such a strategy in keeping with the UK Climate Change Act of the last Labour government. Initial attempts to construct it lacked ambition and a coalition of campaigners from the environmental movement wrote an alternative strategy, Call to Real Action. While its radical proposals were not adopted, its message about involving the community was, and as a result, the existing strategy has emphasised engagement with non-governmental sectors. Why? Because reducing emissions requires action in all sectors of the economy and society, not just in local government which does not have the levers to make these reductions happen. And because most of the expertise on climate change and strategies for addressing it is outside the council, in campaigning organisations, universities and some business sectors. Despite the attempt to bring other actors in, as annual reviews and the current strategy have admitted, the ambition to cut carbon emissions by 41% by 2020 (from 2005 levels) will be missed. Only a 32% cut seems likely. And the level of engagement from other organisations has also been disappointing.

These disappointing results should be viewed in context. The world in general is also failing miserably on climate change with atmospheric carbon dioxide now above the symbolic threshold of 400ppm, highly unlikely to return, and global average temperatures now at least 1ºC above pre-industrial levels. With positive feedback processes that are being triggered (reduced reflection from polar ice, reduction of ocean ability to absorb CO2 and heat, release of methane from frozen deposits in polar regions, forest and peatland destruction and fires….) we are on the brink of a runaway warming catastrophe and radical action is required now to avert it. So far there is no sign of that happening, despite the much trumpeted Paris agreement that sadly has no credible strategy nor commitments behind it.

Manchester was the first industrial city, founded on the exploitation of coal for industrial production. It has a historic debt to the world as a major emitter of greenhouse gases, something it continues to do today via what despite huge inequality and severe poverty in the city, are extravagant and unthinking patterns of consumption, from international flights to private motoring to the importation of foods and consumer goods, to illuminated advertising hoardings urging us to buy more. So while Manchester can only make a small contribution to the global total, it could show inspired leadership and begin to make reparation for is historical (and to be fair, mostly unwitting) contribution to the climate crisis.

  • What does the new strategy cover?

The new strategy covers the period until 2050. That’s a long time – 34 years, by which time I would be 98 and my grandchildren already middle aged. There is nothing wrong with a long timescale for a vision, but action on cumulating emissions is urgent so the next 5 years is critical.

The strategy covers five areas and the summary is worth quoting in full:

Supporting a sustainable economy and jobs – action on climate change will become an increasingly important part of the city’s sustainable, dynamic

and competitive economy. Manchester-based businesses and universities will be playing a strong and growing role in delivering solutions locally and to cities around the world. The city’s businesses will have access to a rich pool of Carbon Literate local talent, fed by our world-class universities, and our excellent schools and colleges. Businesses, workers and visitors will come from around the world to experience our liveable, resilient, green city.

Supporting healthy communities – Manchester’s residents will be leading increasingly healthy lifestyles that are underpinned by access to high quality parks and green spaces, clean air, healthy local food, safe walking and cycling routes, energy efficient homes and affordable supplies of energy.

Adaptation and resilience to climate change – the city’s businesses and communities will become increasingly resilient to the warmer and wetter winters, hotter and drier summers, and extreme weather that we expect to come with a changing climate.

CO2 reduction – recognising the leadership role and carbon reduction potential of cities, we will reduce our emissions ahead of national and international CO2 reduction targets, setting milestones for 2020, 2030 and 2040, on route to the city being zero carbon by 2050.

Low carbon culture change – climate-positive decision-making and behaviours will become progressively incentivised and embedded within the lifestyles and business operations of the city.

  • What do we think about the strategy?

In what follows we’ll follow the structure of the questionnaire that the strategy is using for its consultation. We don’t respond to every point in detail.

It is important to note that while we will be saying some critical things, we do respect the integrity of those who have worked hard to pull together this strategy, let it be said, in the face of a dominant economic strategy in the city, country and world, that is absolutely toxic for people and planet.

The focus here is on Manchester, but it is the city region that is the more relevant focus and we look forward to the completion of the GMCA climate strategy with which this Manchester one should dovetail.

    • Consultation questions and our answers

      • 1. How important is it for residents in Manchester to take action on climate change?

Somewhat important (the issue is very important but individuals can only do so much: to over-emphasise personal agency is to distract from the systemic factors).

    • 2. How important is it for businesses in Manchester to take action on climate change?

Extremely important (since they account for a large part of the economy and its emissions, directly and indirectly).

    • 3. How important is it for schools, colleges and universities in Manchester to take action on climate change?

Somewhat important (probably limited in immediate impact).

    • 4. The draft strategy sets an ambitious aim for Manchester to be a zero carbon city by 2050. There are 2 main reasons for this. a) To help make the city a better place to live, work and visit, with lower energy bills, better air quality, more green spaces, new jobs, and many other benefits. Do you think it is important for Manchester to act on climate change for this reason?

Extremely important (to be carbon zero, though 2050 is far too late: rapid and immediate cuts are needed).

    • b) To be a leading city for our contribution to global action on climate change. Do you think it is important for Manchester to act on climate change for this reason?

Somewhat important (very important because of Manchester’s historical responsibility for the carbon-based economy. But let’s not exaggerate the city’s current importance in line with the boosterist mind-set of our city leaders!)

    • 5. Do you think the vision and objectives in section 3 of the draft strategy are the right ones for Manchester

Not ambitious enough

Please explain why you chose that answer.


1) Low carbon economy is fine but it is vital to to state which sectors will need to shrink. Aggregate economic growth will make the task of radical carbon reductions more difficult: you need to set out an indicative reduction strategy for material flows into and out of the economy and translate this into indicative levels and targets by sector. Certain sectors, including private motoring and aviation are particularly damaging and reduce overall quality of life. Just promoting the growth of the green economy on its own is tantamount to denial of the problem. And what about rebound?

The section on improving energy efficiency of all businesses identifies correctly the importance of energy efficiency but fails to indicate the overall levels of energy input reductions that are needed. It is also couched in terms of the overall business growth narrative which is actually the root of the problem: the material size of our economy is too big so we have to find ways to equitably shrink it while maintaining the ability to create and share surplus – it’s not easy, but let’s not delude ourselves that we can expand our way to climate safety.

Appropriate technology is going to be needed but the section has an unfortunate technological, even technocratic optimism, failing to recognise that all our lives and consumption patterns need to change radically to a low energy model.

2) The section on health is vague. How are you / we going to move towards healthier, low carbon, life-styles. How will the dominance of the car, for example, be addressed. What about the health-damaging practices of big business (for example the food industry)? How can Manchester and GM use its place-shaping power and influence to create radical shifts in this area?

3) The section on adaptation is broadly sound. We would add a requirement to add climate shocks and events to the city and region’s disaster risk management planning. Have you engaged police, fire, ambulance and other NHS, army in your plans and consultation?

It would be good to see an options analysis on densification versus a more distributed, model of the city and city region with more local employment/housing/green areas reducing the need to travel within the city region, on a kind of retrofitted garden-city model. The evidence on densification is at best equivocal and nuanced1.

4) Climate science now tells us very clearly that the targets on zero carbon are extremely inadequate2. 2050 is far too late.

Runaway climate change is here already. We need to make massive cuts to emissions and this strategy is mere tinkering. We suggest as a minimum going zero carbon by 2025, and even that is too slow. This requires an energy descent plan as a minimum. We recognise that the power of the city/MACF is limited here, but that does not excuse a timid and fudged target. Rather it defines the work that is needed to bring in the other sectors, and the powers that need to be acquired and assumed.

5) Low carbon culture change: The strategy says “The question is sometimes posed whether low carbon culture change initiatives should be focussed on ‘behaviour change’ activities focussed on citizens, to directly try to influence their behaviour, or on low carbon ‘skills training’ in schools, colleges and the workplace to encourage the development of products and services that offer a low carbon alternative to the norm.”
This misses the point. Both these strategies if pursued alone are individualistic: they ignore the context within which behaviour changes. Culture is not reducible to behaviour. Sure critical understanding and information for citizens is important, but without the structures that require, encourage and support them to make change, then such approaches are little better than victim-blaming.

    • 6. Do you think section 4 of the draft strategy [carbon emissions reduction] covers all the areas where action is needed?


1) The setting conditions identified are broadly OK but the content is too weak. We suggest something a little like the idea of “planning agreements”. The idea is that city leaders sit down with leading firms and organisations in each sector and identify the kinds of indicative limits and targets that I’ve mentioned above. These are then monitored and publicly posted so that there can be a cultural shift to accountability with acclamation and shame as key levers.

And yet again, relying on a growth strategy is inadequate – you need to set clear reduction targets and priorities for the damaging sectors. Yes the airport is a problem that needs more than the worthless international carbon trading offset agreement to force change – which means reduction in aviation and the city’s aviation dependency.

2) Energy. Particularly given the problem you identify of Manchester not having autonomy in its energy mix, you will not be able to rely on energy mix decarbonisation alone to reduce CO2. Therefore you need to set clear energy reduction targets.

There are some good ideas on buildings. It is worth trying to get near passivehaus standards imposed for all new build and considering street by street deeper retrofit schemes for existing housing stock.

There is also scope for promoting low embodied carbon technologies in building and retrofitting – see the work of CAT on this.

Indeed concrete is one of the major CO2 emitters but there are alternatives that need scaling up for many construction tasks.

3) Transport. This section is very disappointing, falling under the sway of the fantasist visions of the city and GMCA. Manchester is a car-orientated city. How will the step change to one without significant numbers of cars be reached? How will car travel be disincentivised: car parking levies as in Nottingham, protected cycle space on all but the smallest roads, as in most Northern European

cities? Bus regulation and the taking back of control under the public sector (the norm in Europe) is required as that will facilitate low energy/low carbon options including some further tramway routes, possibly trolleybuses (for faster and cheaper deployment – cf Salzburg), biogas (already in Metrolink) from landfill and possibly some other sources (caution though on imports and tree-based biomass3 ) for buses (see for example Malmö), and new housing development that designs out the car (cf. Gothenburg, Freiburg etc).

Please do stop pretending the airport is part of the solution. If it is not going to reduce, and is even going to grow, then state where the deeper cuts will be made to compensate. Believe us you won’t be able to do it!

4) Green spaces and waterways. This section needs to work towards proper analysis of the carbon sequestration potential of these areas with quantified options appraisal for alternative planting and restoration plans. This needs balancing with biodiversity and other eco-physical dimensions (nitrogen, phosphorous etc). That’s a big bit of work so you need to propose how it will be done.

5) Food system emissions are very very significant and it’s good you mention them, but more detail is needed.

    • 7. Please list all the things you do to tackle climate change?

This question is unnecessary, suggesting that individuals, by changing their behaviour, can make a significant impact on climate. This is only true to the extent that they can exert leadership and act together, politically.

    • 8. What else would you like to do and what support would you need?

So: Anything that amplifies the above actions.

    • 9. What should we do more of as a city to help tackle climate change?

Some ideas:

Press very hard on Greater Manchester Pension Fund to divest from its fossil fuel assets. 5 year plan starting with no new investments, pulling out of coal, fracking and tar sands, with full divestment over 5 years. Reinvestment will help your green economy plans too.

All councillors and senior managers should be required to complete carbon literacy training and a series of workshops held for the graduates with civil society activists and campaigners for radical carbon reduction.

  1. 10. Please leave any other comments here

We make a lot of critical comments but we hope they are also constructive. This whole area is frustrating given the slow progress and we do recognise that it is not easy being an environmentalist who works with a large bureaucracy, with its own logic. It is good that Manchester does have a CC plan and at least officially makes some of the right noises. We need to push for more ambition in this, adequate to the almost stupefying scale of the challenge facing humanity now.

Mark H Burton

for Steady State Manchester

1 Waters, J. (2016). Accessible Cities. In D. Simon (Ed.), Rethinking sustainable cities: accessible, green and fair. Free download from https://oapen.org/download?type=document&docid=613676

2 McKibben, B. (2016). Recalculating the Climate Math | New Republic. Retrieved October 10, 2016, from https://newrepublic.com/article/136987/recalculating-climate-math



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The circular economy: is it the solution to resource depletion and pollution?

opened up circular arrowsThe main promoter of the circular economy (CE) defines it like this:

A circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles1. (Ellen MacArthur Foundation – EMF).

It sees waste products being fed back into the production cycle as resources, reliance on renewable energy and other resources, and overall zero waste. Proponents distinguish it from the dominant economy which is linear: matter is extracted as resources, transformed by production and then ends up in environmental sinks. The CE is meant to be based on three principles:

1) Preserve and enhance natural capital by controlling finite stocks and balancing renewable resource flows. 2) Optimise resource yields by circulating products, components, and materials at the highest utility at all times in both technical and biological cycles. 3) Foster system effectiveness
 by revealing and designing out negative externalities2.

The basic ideas are sound: closing cycles and ceasing to treat the environment as unlimited resource pool and sink for pollution. The problems lie in the extent to which a CE can allow “business otherwise as usual” with little change to our pattern of life, our levels of consumption and the continued expansion of the economy. To illustrate the problem, here are three criticisms of the CE: practical, political and physical.

1) Practical: the implausibility of matching waste products to inputs.

Circular systems also maximise use of end-of-use bio-based materials, extracting valuable bio-chemical feedstocks and cascading them into different, increasingly low-grade applications3.”

To what extent can waste outputs and resource inputs be matched? There is no reason to think that these two things are going to cancel out, resulting in a near zero-waste and low-extraction system. Moreover, different industries are located in different places, so even if outputs could all become inputs, there will be substantial energy inputs needed to close the loop, transferring outputs from one site to be used as inputs in another site. And the outputs are not generally usable as inputs: they will typically need processing, which again requires energy and in many cases other primary resource inputs.

2) Reformism: the CE advocates generally support a growth economy model, promoting what is perhaps a more sophisticated version of the “green growth” fudge. In a recent report from the EMF, the following claim is made about the CE if implemented in Europe:

The modelling for 2030 suggests that the disposable income of European households could be as much as 11 percentage points higher in the circular scenario relative to the current development path, or 7 percentage points more in GDP terms.4

However, as the economist Christian Arnsperger notes5, citing work, commisioned by Veolia, by François Grosse, the benefits of a circular economy only apply under the following conditions:

An annual raw material consumption growth rate below 1%.

A very high recycling rate (more than 60 to 80%) in order to delay significantly the resource depletion rate.

Grosse notes that:

As a whole, the relative impact of cumulative present-day recycling becomes negligible after a few decades in view of global production growth.”

Now it may be objected that Grosse only considers recycling, in this analysis, but this is the most concrete element of the proposed CE,

To illustrate how the CE is wedded to the growth model, consider this quotation, again from the EMF report cited above:

A circular economy could greatly benefit the environment and boost competitiveness and resilience. A circular economy would decouple economic growth from resource use.

As readers of our work will be aware, the decoupling hypothesis has poor support, or at best, economic growth makes it much harder to reduce material throughputs (and hence both resource use and emissions)6.

3) Physical: the CE cannot suspend the laws of thermodynamics.

Ultimately, the goal of endlessly recycling and regenerating the substrate for the industrial system is impossible: materials get dispersed and degraded through their transformation and it becomes infeasible to identify and collect every fragment: think of the tyres on a bus or train brakes which are in the process of being degraded to powder and gas. Or think of the many volatile solvents that are necessary for industrial processes: they too disperse, into the atmosphere over time. Those particles are never going to be reclaimed, and these are just the most obvious aspects of the trend to dissipation of all materials, and of energy too7.

As this passage from a European Academies Science Advisory Council report notes:

Recovery and recycling of materials that have been dispersed through pollution, waste and end-of-life product disposal require energy and resources, which increase in a nonlinear manner as the percentage of recycled material rises (owing to the second law of thermodynamics: entropy causing dispersion). Recovery can never be 100% (Faber et al., 1987). The level of recycling that is appropriate may differ between materials.8

As Christian Arnsperger suggests, to retrieve the idea of circularity requires a second concept, that of sufficiency, of “enough”. Without that, it is at best a way of postponing the inevitable crash, and at worst a way of giving false credibility to the growthist delusion. So the idea of resource cycling loops needs combining with the radical reduction of consumption, long product durability, re-use and repair.

Mark H Burton

3See previous citation.

7For an accessible treatment of physical constraints on the economy see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dave-pruett/what-economists-dont-know_b_10742790.html

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