Something Stirring: a week and some months in Manchester

The Conservative Party Conference finished in town yesterday. It’s not the first time; but this feels different. I’ve been to three fringe events and all of them were stimulating, and surprisingly so. The commendable Centre for Cities assembled a line up to discuss Industrial Strategy, Economic Growth and Devolution. After covering a lot of ground, the general conclusions seemed to be that we need the infrastructure yes, but skills is the biggest single factor that could help close the performance gap between the North and the South.

I then went to a more obscure, but equally interesting session on Manufacturing Trade Remedies organised by the British Ceramics Confederation where chemicals, steel and paper industries all put forward concerns about the emerging UK approach to trade dispute resolution – each drawing on sector experience over the last 15 years of working through the existing EU systems. The general conclusion was that although the EU approach isn’t swift or punitive enough to be a deterrent, it can work. And, although Brexit does present us with an opportunity to develop a more effective system, the ideas emerging from DIT so far are not filling these important manufacturing sectors with confidence. I also learnt from the Australian High Commissioner that the UK exports boomerangs down under!

My final fringe event hosted by Mazaars and Discuss with Greg Clark MP, Joanne Roney, the city’s new chief executive, Diane Coyle from the University of Manchester, plus the ever engaging Mike Emmerich. The general message was that we’ve made a start and devolution has legs but there is much further to go. We may make mistakes, but that’s what having control is all about. Manchester and the other cities of the North need to seize this agenda while it’s there and build the institutional capacity befitting a confident and able city-region of our size.

This week comes off the back of what feels like a significant series of events for Manchester which I think may at last, see us shift the talk of a modern original European city to some sort of reality. We all know that part of our city’s success has been to talk itself up. The swagger is part of what we are, but we also know it’s not enough.

Two major things feel to me like they’ve fundamentally shifted though. The first is the arrival of the mayor – early days we know but how quickly we seem to have got used to having someone speak up on TV for Greater Manchester, and how readily we seem to point to the mayor when we want to complain about homelessness, cycling, buses etc. It feels like people in the city are now more confident that we can get more done the way we want it done.

And, the second is the tragic event at the MEN Arena in May. The sense of civic pride that this seems to have unlocked was always there, but it now feels real rather than remembered. We heart MCR has  touched the whole city and the Longfella poem “This is The Place” from the Albert Square vigil captured something of the essence that connects us to Manchester.

At Regeneris we have looked at ourselves and realised that although we operate from the city, our roots into the city are not as deep as we want them to be. We had already chosen to fund raise for the great 42nd Street to help young people struggling with emotional wellbeing and mental health. Since then we have begun to talk with others about how we can develop a new generation of smart movers and shakers to shape the economic development agenda in the city. And, we have also been talking with Forever Manchester about supporting their work in our communities.

We know much more hard work and investment needs to be focussed on our infrastructure and our businesses, our schools and our people. But for me I don’t feel like we have a proper sense of our city’s options and challenges. I don’t feel there is a strong community of debate, advocacy, challenge and learning among our current economic development community.

I haven’t got a simple answer but it feels like we would be better equipped to address the challenges of Brexit, ageing, congestion, housing, public realm, health, welfare, innovation, productivity and skills, if we had a more vibrant, active network of lawyers, planners, investors, philanthropists, economists, coders, entrepreneurs, researchers, big wigs and swagger merchants. I got a sense of what this might look like this week at these fringe events. There must be others like us at here at Regeneris, others who want to contribute to the city’s knowledge capital and engagement – help build a city that works for Manchester even.

Pro Manchester, Discuss and the Policy@ team at Manchester University are showing the way. And, IPPR North have been a solid voice, doing great work with the newly established Northern Powerhouse Partnership. But, it still feels like it needs to move up a level if Manchester is to have a community of insightful and passionate people, learning from each other, stretching the city to do more and agitating for things to be better.

I’m there and ready, but what comes next? Are these stirrings? And is there more stirring to do?


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