Interview with Mark Burton of Steady State Manchester

January 23, 2020

Steady State Manchester is a campaigning group with almost a decade’s work under its belt. It is  is trying to get people – and policymakers in particular – to see the need for a very different economy – one that respects the limits of the earth to both produce but also absorb the existing economy’s “waste” (including carbon dioxide). 

Mark Burton, one of the founding members, kindly answered email questions about the group’s work.

1)  So, you’ve got the meeting coming up on Thursday 23rd.  Can you explain a bit about the context of this, what you’re hoping to achieve, who you’d like to see there, what should people do if they’re interested but can’t come, and most of all what is a ‘Spatial Framework’ and why should climate activists care?

It’s to try and get to a shared, alternative vision of what our city region could be like, in terms of the way homes, jobs, recreation, education, natural spaces and so on are distributed over the land available.

There is an official plan called the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF).  It has gone through a number of versions and still has not been finalised.  On consultation, the last two versions received an enormous number of responses.  From the various community and environmental groups responding, there was widespread concern about the encroachment on green spaces.

We’ve been concerned about the GM Spatial Framework since we first became aware of it more than five years ago.  It is an overall plan for the Greater Manchester area that tries to do two things,

a) It aims to be an overall plan for the city region, in spatial terms.  As the posters for the last consultation asked us: “What kind of a City Region do you want”.

b) It meets the government’s requirements that councils have an up to date local plan and can a pipeline of housing to meet the government’s targets.

This could be good, in that having a plan in place can make it more difficult for developers to railroad their proposals through (using the “presumption for (‘sustainable’) development”,

“Local planning authorities should approach decisions on proposed development in a positive and creative way… Decision-makers at every level should seek to approve applications for sustainable development where possible”  (Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, 2012b)

However, the approach taken, although making some concessions to nature and the climate crisis, is very much of the standard model,  based on highly specialised zones, for retail, commerce, warehousing and logistics, housing and amenity, the whole dependent on moving people around quickly via roads, motorways and public transport links, all assuming high levels of “economic growth”. Opposition has focused on the housing models and on the erosion of green space, in the green belt and elsewhere.

For us, it is good to know what we are against, but if we are to fight for something better, then we really need an alternative vision.  Our idea is to work with those that come on that.  What comes out of it will depend on the level of interest, enthusiasm, creativity and commitment to do further work.  We won’t be starting from a blank slate, in that there are alternative approaches, which we’ve discussed in our work: , from the retrofit garden city and continuous productive urban landscapes, and “rurban” or urbal retrosuburbia”, to the “20 minute neighbourhood”We’ve discussed the dilemmas of “densification” – does it help to deliver low-carbon living or does it sacrifice the possibilities for urban food production that we might need in an energy-scarce, post-oil world?

We’d like to see anyone that wants to explore the alternative to the standard model.  We anticipate a variety of interests, from those that are concerned with their local green space, to those with more general concerns about the way this city region is growing and changing.  Specifically for climate concerns, we can’t afford to lose green space, and we need to help green spaces capture and retain carbon.  We can reduce emissions by reconfiguring the ways we move around and provision ourselves and our families: so much of the standard model relies on trucking goods into and around the region: we can do better, making a more liveable network of places, while reducing ecological and climate impacts.

2) How does this GM Spatial Framework relate to the upcoming Local Plan for Manchester, and could you say a bit about that Local Plan, which is being consulted on (for the first time) from 7th February

The Local Plan fits into the context of the Spatial Framework, as well as the Manchester Strategy.  Some issues are tackled at this sub-regional, Greater Manchester level, and the Spatial Framework was also meant as a way of helping the local councils get up to speed.  If they don’t, then there are rather severe government sanctions and it becomes even more of a developers’ free for all.  That nesting within the GMSF perhaps explains why the plan is pretty sketchy.  In some ways, a lack of detail could be good, if it gave space for citizens to shape the plan (rather than having to respond to what are essentially “done deals”), but it doesn’t really read like that.

All these documents combine positive elements on becoming carbon neutral and on protecting and enhancing green space with what’s been variously called boosterism, agglomeration economics, trickle down theory, and growthism.  The problem is that the standard model, the continual expansion of the material economy, always wins out, making secondary the climate and ecological concerns, however genuinely they may be aspired to.  Our detailed responses to the Spatial Framework go into more detail about this.  See here, here, and here.

3) More generally, on the City Council’s climate emergency declaration of July 2019, and its ‘Zero Carbon Framework’, due for discussion on 5th February at Neighbourhoods and Environment Scrutiny Committee of the Town Hall, how would you say

a) these plans and frameworks have common failings and

b) what do you think activists should be doing in response to these documents?

c) what can we learn from past activist efforts to engage?

The climate emergency declaration was excellent and much more well thought through than many of the other ones made by other councils.  Why?  Backbench councillors proposed it, against what appeared to be initial reluctance from the Executive (although they did speak in favour of it).  Those backbenchers took a lot of advice from activists and campaigners as well as experts on climate.  That’s why it is comprehensive, with clear goals that I know CEM have been able to use to monitor and criticise the quality and quantity of implementation. [CEM – See our second ‘Hung Drawn and Quarterly report here!].

The city’s climate plan, led by an arms length agency that is woefully under-resourced, has a good basis in climate science (it uses the Tyndall Centre calculations on Manchester’s share of a carbon budget for a good chance of significantly less than 2 degrees of warming), and identifies the correct broad areas.  After that it falls down because it lacks clarity about the actions that must urgently be taken, and it lacks either authority to implement or a convincing strategy for bringing people and organisations into the programme (see our analysis from just over a year ago).

The council’s internal work is not sufficiently transparent and as your work has shown, there seems to be a lot of fudging of actions and a slow pace of implementation.  The items to be discussed on 5 Feb, while worthwhile in many cases, do not together equate to a credible agenda for climate mitigation and adaptation.

There are some good things though: the efforts of councillors working with activists in some wards are a good start (e.g. Chorlton Park, Chorlton, and in a rather different way, Whalley Range), while the council has taken a reasonably firm line of interrogation with the Pension Fund. I think there’s a choice to be made in terms of where activists should be putting their effort.  I wonder if the priority should be identifying deliverable changes and then campaigning like mad for them. Massive tree planting, restrictions on private cars (parking levies, moratorium on car park building, road pricing – call it that because there is an allergy to “congestion charging”), an 18 degree challenge to prevent homes being overheated while ensuring nobody has to suffer cold housing.  It’s worth looking at good practice elsewhere – e.g. Hackney’s tree planting and school parking restrictions, Barcelona’s “super blocks”, or Melbourne’s commitment to the 20 minute neighbourhood. We’ve failed in part by being too diffusely focussed and too easily satisfied with small gains.  That is beginning to change.

4) More generally, how do you keep your hope alive?  (and you’re NOT allowed to use THAT Gramsci quote). Oh, go on then.

I will say “Pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will” (attr. A Gramsci) but that is probably more a personality trait than anything else.  It fits me but might not work for others.  But it’s not bad counsel if you can make use of it.

5) Anything else you’d like to say?

Do look up what we are doing.  We are keen for more people to get involved in our work!


Teaser photo credit: Some parts of Greater Manchester could easily be made more like a Garden City. Alexandra Park and Estate. Source: Steady-State Manchester website.

Marc Hudson

PhD, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

Tags: alternatives to neoliberalism, building resilient cities, new economy, urban planning policy