Urban Forum – Manchester: Towards a Just City?

cities@manchester are organising a public panel debate on Tuesday 18 June at the Anthony Burgess Foundation. Full details here.

Manchester like many cities at present suffers from growing divides, poverty and inequality. The Council has cut jobs and reduced services, while the centre of the city and surrounding retail high streets are blighted with a growing number of empty store fronts. With house prices stagnant or falling and unemployment levels across Greater Manchester continuing to rise, it is unclear how housing or labour markets can improve the living conditions of the local area. Some analysts point to possibilities for job growth from the creative industries and financial services sectors, but these opportunities remain as yet unrealised. In this research forum we bring together a number of stakeholders to explore where manchester is now, the challenges it faces and what it needs to do to become more at ease with itself and more socially just.

Panel:

Neil McInroy, Chief Executive, Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES); Allison Foreman, Project Development Coordinator, Greater Manchester Pay and Employment Rights Advice Service; John Holden, Deputy Director of Research, New Economy Manchester; Clive Memmott, Chief Executive, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Chair: Adam Leaver (Manchester Business School, University of Manchester)

Some of the panel give their viewpoints below:

Clive Memmott, Chief Executive, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

In the current economic and political climate it can be difficult to get behind the headlines and uncover what the real situation is.

Whilst the ongoing drive to cut spending dominates much of government thinking, it would be incorrect from a business perspective to say that all is lost and that there is no money available.

Since the financial tornado struck in Autumn 2008 the private sector has borne the brunt of the maelstrom caused by a combination of seemingly reckless activity by banks and successive governments’ inability to react adequately to promote growth and help create adequate employment opportunities.  The public sector too has suffered greatly from these tough economic times.

Things are better than they were – this isn’t denying the seriousness of the situation – but let’s be clear this means flat or low growth. Our most recent Quarterly Economic Survey, completed by over 800 businesses, showed that one of the worst hit sectors, construction, showed some signs of growth. This sounds promising, but the reality is that this is from a breath-takingly low starting point.

Some sectors have fared better but set against the broader economic conditions these results are often difficult to see. On the one hand private sector jobs figures remain positive but this is counterbalanced by weaknesses elsewhere, ensuring that the overall situation (for those out of work) is still challenging.

However some of the present issues predate present experience and will need more than an economic upturn to rectify. Ask any employer about skills or rather the lack of them and it’s apparent we have a startling wide range of shortages.  The figures make stark reading: with over 15% of Greater Manchester residents having no skills. The challenge of inadequately trained and work ready employees dates back to issues caused two or even three recessions ago. We feel the brunt now because of the acuteness of circumstances.

Likewise the state of our high streets. Previous recessions dealt severe if not fatal blows to our large manufacturing base. This time around major high street chains – some of which have been around for generations – have gone out of business. However as we sit shopping on Amazon whilst shaking our head at the news of another boarded up shop, should we ask ourselves about the role we have played in this?

One price of a reasonably robust level of employment is the significant rise of part-time working which has benefits as well as some obvious downsides.

Yes, there are increasing numbers of high value, high skills jobs, but there are also plenty of low skill, low value jobs.

We do have a part to play however in putting things right. The Chamber is tackling the skills issue through its Employer Ownership of Skills work, our members want to help reinvigorate our town centres; more businesses are showing an interest in trading abroad – those that do are better placed to develop and grow in the future.

Whilst it can be dangerous to pick winners, it is sometimes more dangerous to ignore them. We have and always have had some world class businesses in Manchester, and many more aspire to be so.  They don’t want special treatment just an environment that encourages enterprise which will allow them to grow and create the opportunities for the future so desperately needed to lead the economic recovery. They generally understand the social role they play and the impact they have on communities.

I see this everyday and I see what can and must be done. It isn’t beyond anyone’s ability to make this happen but everyone has a part to play either as catalysts for change or giving support to those that take action.

John Holden, Deputy Director of Research, New Economy Manchester

Books have been published, phds written, and raging debates held on what exactly it means to be a Just City. There isn’t scope in these few words to do any of that work justice, so I will take as my starting point a narrow definition that I think most people would broadly agree with: a Just City is one that provides equality of opportunity to all residents, especially the young. The interesting question then becomes: what can local policy makers do to ensure that all residents share the same opportunities in life? The weight of research tells us that the single most significant differentiating factor between those who succeed in life and those that do not is their level of skill. This underscores the need for a single-minded focus on improving education. This needs to start in the very earliest years, certainly before school and ideally from birth onwards, to ensure a radical improvement in life chances. At the same time, while improving educational outcomes across the spectrum is the archetypal easy thing to say but difficult thing to do, do it we must. The need to improve skill levels also holds for those who have left education and find themselves either unemployed or in low paid work.

If that sounds too easy, it’s probably because it is. In the current economic climate there are two factors which mean making Manchester a more Just City is all the more challenging. First, despite the labour market holding up better than expected at the start of the recession, there is still a shortage of job opportunities. Public agencies have to focus on generating economic growth and jobs for our residents to move into. It would be foolish to focus simply on the distribution of wealth without concerning ourselves with where that wealth is to come from. Second, public sector budgets are reducing and the pressures on services that support many of our most deprived residents increasing. It is not enough to identify what more policy makers can do, we need to identify what can be done differently to achieve better outcomes with less money. Through its economic growth objectives and public service reform programme Greater Manchester is ahead of most places in tackling these issues head on and making the city a more just place. If we achieve all we want to, we might yet write the definitive book.

Neil McInroy, Chief Executive, Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES)

Across the UK, and the world, we are in a moment of significant economic injustice.  Things which have always been there are now in more obvious focus.  Inequality knows no compass points in Britain today.  There is a growing complex patchwork quilt of haves and have-nots.  And yes in London too.

In urban policy terms, neo liberal ideas around urban enrepreneuralism, where we just made it easy for global financial capitalism are being exposed and urban policy with a focus on manufacturing and industry struggles to find and alternative.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it would appear in policy terms that the message of necessity has not yet got through.

So we need to face up to some realities.

Four things we need to do.

1. Recognise.  The so called good times were not that good.

Most historic and present economic development, basically hangs on to the half truth that a growing economy will lift people out of poverty – trickle down.  However, even the good times were not that good for some areas.  We cannot boom-goggle – A chronic condition of vision in which nothing is seen but endless boom just around the corner. We need to do something more progressive with growth, wealth creation, and redistribute in different ways.

2. Reducing poverty is not the outcome of economic growth, it’s part of the solution

Tackling poverty is part of the economic answer and unless we do something about poverty, then it may be difficult to restore the kind of prosperity we would like. Our economy needs the poor to not be poor.

Levels of disposable income are reducing local demand.  Trickle up economics tells us that the poorest have a higher propensity to consume. They will spend a higher proportion of their income, usually locally. They must start earning and spending. Our businesses (especially our SME’s) need this. This relationship means, we have an irrefutable economic rationale for dealing with this shocking situation as regards low wages, underemployment and poverty.

3. We need to advance and accelerate new economic thinking.

Some great organic grass roots based stuff is happening

  • The rise of alternative financial models –such as crowdfunding
  •  appreciation of a social return on investment,
  • new forms of exchange, production and consumption cooperatives,

Local economic policy needs to catch up with this narrative and be bold. This is the future.

4. There is the need for a new economic activism, driving transformation. 

In this, we need the central state to set a better redistributive context.  The poorest areas need more support, this is not jam spreading.  It’s about giving the most in need more sustenance. We need a proper industrial strategy and a coherent set of initiatives.

From there we look at the local state, to work to think about a new economic and social destiny.  This includes things like the development of positive local multiplier outcomes, which means local sourcing, means local jobs, means more local spend.

Just look at this city – Manchester City Council spends over 50% of its commissioned goods and services within the Manchester economy.  With over 50% of that in the most deprived neighbourhoods.  Suppliers re-spent 47p in every pound back in Manchester economy in 10/11.  A good start. (for more details see here)

It’s also about a new local social and economic contract, with business at the front appreciating place, respecting public inputs to its success and working where it can to play more of an activist place role.

Finally the economic sphere is not some opposite to social life.  The aim of the economy, is to improve social life.  This means creating an economy, which is not solely for private gain, but there to support social institutions for social development and a decent standard of living for all.  This has to be the economic future.  This is a just city.

 

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