The city must do more to address its “mass inequalities” and needs help from Whitehall and the development community to do so, according to new city council leader Cllr Bev Craig.
“It will hold us back if we don’t deal with it,” she told Place North West.
“I think there is the moral argument but also an economic argument for tackling poverty and ill health and all the issues that are associated with it.”
Craig, who today takes over from Sir Richard Leese as leader of the city council, points to Manchester’s indices of deprivation as a marker of how much needs to be done.
“We are the sixth most deprived local authority in the country and we are the most deprived local authority in Greater Manchester. We’ve got our own challenges that we’re only a little bit of the way on the journey to solving. Manchester is not finished.”
Much of this inequality occurs away from the city centre.
Craig wants residents of Burnage and Moston to be as proud of their neighbourhoods as those who live in Ancoats, adding that the necessary interventions cannot be delivered without help from higher up.
“The council has had masterplans and blueprints for such a long time, as to the things that we think those communities need in order to be able to prosper and thrive, what we haven’t had has been infrastructure support from government.
“If you think about Grey Mare Lane Estate near the Etihad, we’ve been talking about that for decades.”
Those who know Craig agree she leans further to the left than Leese. That being said, she is more than willing to work with Whitehall to unlock regeneration opportunities that benefit Manchester people.
“I’m a Labour politician, I will always come from a particular world view,” she said. “But if somebody says, ‘we’ve got a billion pounds we want to put into Manchester’, what kind of politician wouldn’t accept that?”
This stance chimes with the approach of her predecessor, who was a proponent of cross-party collaboration if it benefitted Manchester, something Craig seems keen to continue.
“In Manchester we’re known as the pragmatists of local government with the ability to get stuff done,” she said.
“We’ll continue to make the case, challenging the government when they get it wrong and working with them when they’re getting it right.”
City centre favouritism?
The city centre has seen drastic growth over the past decade or more, while some outlying neighbourhoods have been overlooked.
Craig, who is 36, explained this from an economic standpoint. “It’s not been a lack of ideas or ambition. Without growing the centre, you don’t have any of your own leverage, or your own income or your own capital.
“We’ve got a confident, thriving centre. That means we can take some of that experience and talent and look at some other projects.”
One step the city can take towards addressing inequality is diversifying its economy, Craig said.
“What we’ve done with science and technology is important, and what we’ve done in the digital and creative sector is important. But conversely, the other side of that is that just over 23% of Manchester residents are paid beneath the real living wage.”
While Craig is keen to target areas of the city that are in need of investment and improve the lives of residents, she has watched with interest the city centre’s growth since becoming a politician in 2011.
Crane your necks
The skyline, which is unrecognisable from 10 years ago, is dominated by high-rise residential developments and Craig is open to more of the same in the coming years.
She claims that building dense, vertical communities in the city centre could benefit those areas she is keen to level up.
“Cities are going up. In the future, 70% of the [global] population will live in cities. I think that actually by allowing growth upwards in Manchester city centre, it allows us to make some of the interventions we need to, to make sure we’ve got mixed communities in and around the edges of the city as well.”
This statement comes with a caveat. Manchester wants to be net zero by 2038 and creating glass and steel skyscrapers jars with that ambition.
If developers want to be successful in Manchester, they must innovate, Craig said.
“Manchester likes to pride itself on being the home of ideas and the gauntlet is there to developers. I’m confident that the private sector will rise to the challenge.”
Aside from innovation in sustainability, Craig has more demands for the city’s development community around the issues of affordable housing, job creation, and creating an inclusive economy.
“I’m really keen to work with the private sector that shares those values, or at least can get on board with those values to do business with us.
“I would encourage some of our developers in a city that are particularly longer-term minded to look at what they can do creatively outside the city centre.”
Raring to go
Craig admits that the long lead-in period to being instated as leader has helped her prepare. She is ready, even if taking over from a man who has led the city council since she was just 11 years old brings pressure. Now Leese has departed, the weight of expectation has shifted from his shoulders to Craig’s. If she is feeling the heat, it is not noticeable.
“Everyone will say ‘you’re in the shadows of Richard Leese and you have big shoes to fill’ but I have my own shoes and I am taking my own path.”