<obligatory shame-faced apology for not blogging enough> Well. </okay then.>
So I've spent the past six months, almost, really involved in trying to get Manchester City Council to backtrack on their plans to shut out local library and leisure centre. It's been complicated. Several other pools and libraries around the city are also under threat; ours is the best situation, in that they're in fact building a new 'joint service centre' for the area, due to open in 2015, which will house both facilities, which means that the closures we've been fighting apply to the two-year interval between now and then. Everywhere else, pretty much, it's just curtains, particularly where the libraries are concerned. They're going to get 'outreach' facilities - like, a stack of unmanned books in the back of a shop, a machine to check them in/out, and seven hours a week where they'll be able to get a librarian from elsewhere on the phone to answer any queries. Hooray for civilisation, right?
Anyway. In my area, Levenshulme, we found out a few weeks ago that the Council are backtracking on the leisure centre issue. Our pool/gym is staying open until 2015, dependent on certain criteria being met - i.e., pretty much all the community CASH grants from local government for our neighbourhood are now being pumped into the Baths to meet a deficit, unless some other form of fundraising can fill that gap instead (Unlikely: it's a deprived area; who's got the money for anything like that?). Good news, more or less, except to my mind, there shouldn't be community fundraising, and the CASH grants should be available for public application by community groups as usual. Still, we've kept the facility open. The Council, of course, spin it as their generous gesture; not as the result of public embarrassment caused by our angry campaigning.
The library was a more complicated situation. The leisure centre, as well as the CASH grants/fundraising, was shored up by money from the Public Health fund; the library doesn't have a purse like that into which we/they could dip. But we heard earlier this week that the local girls' high school is stepping up. They need an off-site facility, so they've worked out a deal with the Council whereby they get the use of the building every weekday morning until 2pm, rent-free, and then they fund the library to keep running until 6.30pm each evening, plus Saturdays, for the public. We (the public) get fewer hours than before, but hey, not a lot fewer, and we still get a library. Plus the building (which is a Carnegie library building, and very pretty on the outside) stays in use, and the school will probably be interested in it post-2015, too, meaning there's potential for a community-centre type of thing there when the library moves down the road to the shiny new building. (The Council sold our old community centre for a pound a few years ago. Seriously.) All good. When this was announced, we were so happy - I mean, we really, really didn't think we'd have any luck keeping it open at all. A friend of mine was in tears, and she even set me off. Is there a catch? Well, the Council have managed to pull off quite a coup: they've got headlines and glory about how they've 'saved' us, when in fact they've sloughed off all responsibility for the public library onto the shoulders of a third party. That third party is a state body, sure, so it's not exactly privatisation, but still, it's hardly admirable on the part of the Council, is it? They wouldn't prioritise funding a library; they're still not funding a library; but they get clapped on the back anyway. I feel very churlish criticising this. I was delighted on Monday, and I think the school are doing an amazing thing, and our local councillors have worked ridiculously hard on the campaign to get this result - but the Council ought not to be applauded, surely?
Two more things. I'm going on a bit, I know, but I thought it was worth explaining what I've been doing for ages. So. One: the site for the new joint services centre, the Council announced a few weeks ago, will be just off the main road, on the site where the Arcadia Sports' Centre currently stands. The Arcadia is Manchester's only dedicated roller-skating rink. They host roller hockey and roller derby (the fastest-growing women-only sport in the UK) including international tournaments. Some members of the youth hockey teams have represented the North of England in a national championship. Charlie Chaplin once skated there. The actual building is nothing to look at, sure, but the facility is unique. So the Council are going to raze it. They want to relocate the clubs - but the women who run it have done their research and there isn't anywhere else that they could feasibly use and retain all the hours of sports that the Arcadia hosts. It would cost less than half a million to incorporate it into the new build (total budget, £6.2 million, as far as I know), but the Council won't consider it and they won't hold a public consultation. They say there's no money and no room. The site in question is fronted by a smaller site owned by an individual who's asking too much for the land (say the Council). If they bought that land, there'd be plenty of room, as far as we can tell. But they refuse to go down the route of a CPO. So just as soon we had had good(ish) news on the Baths, this screwed it all up. Now we have good(ish) news about the library, but the Arcadia has to be sorted. Why relocate two local services (without asking the locals if they even wanted the facilities moved) and lose another one (much used, much loved) in return?
The short of it is, we're still having to protest.
The second, and last thing, I wanted to ruminate upon, is the model of protest with which we've been engaged. The Council were eager all along (across the affected areas, not just Levenshulme) for community groups to fight for their facilities by supplying council officers with alternative business plans, demonstrating workable financial models for the retention of the services. That went ahead - or, people submitted plans, no matter how workable they might or might not have been. Remember, we/they aren't professionals, we/they hadn't access to all the info or figures at the right moments, we/they were working blind, without full access to the Council's entire budget and whatever other pieces of data that made the Council declare the facilities unsustainable to begin with. So with the best will in the world, you're probably fucked, right? All that aside, I never, never liked that model. I pay my taxes (or I would, if I could earn above the income tax threshold, but that's another story) and cast my vote so that the Council does this stuff for me. Not only are we unqualified to do these things (imagine I asked them to edit a conference paper for me?) - and to do them for FREE, at that! - but we simply shouldn't have to. Now, our campaign group has been, and is still divided on this issue. Many people dropped out of the process altogether because they felt that the Council were co-opting the community into doing things their way; e.g., they set a budget that is destroying our public services (blaming the central government all the while, but without having the brio to revolt) and then they asked those who were protesting to (a) accept that was the case and (b) try and find a workaround. Coming up with a workaround scheme like that is, to my, mind, a tacit, or even perhaps an overt, acceptance of the very budget that we were/are protesting against. It's, again, a tricky situation. The Council made it very clear that if we didn't play ball, we'd get nothing. So people played ball - wrote plans, met the council officers, etc - and we had a long series of often contentious meetings about policy and ideals and techniques and goals and agendas. These people worked bloody hard. What happened in the end? The Baths stayed open using a business model that bore quite a lot of resemblance to that put forth by the campaign group; a model that wasn't agreed upon unanimously, but was still collectively supported to a large degree. So perhaps it was all for the best. The library's rescue, on the other hand, came about because the head teacher of the school heard about our problems; she needed a space; she didn't want to see a library shut; so she had her own negotiations with the Council and presto, chango, we're still open. A different route.
Now, I feel, and I feel very, very strongly about this, that the role of the protesters in the community was to PROTEST. It was our protest (our occupations, demos, rallies, flashmobbing, street parties, TV and radio appearances, and the media support all those things received, particularly from the MEN and Granada) that made the Council have to actually think about business models, whosoever it might have been that wrote them, and it was our protests that made that head teacher sit up and think. (And hurray for her.) It was fantastic. I've made amazing new friends in the past few months because of it all. It made me feel politically empowered and engaged in a way that has felt so far from possible since 2010's general election. My point is, though, that a narrative is being spun right now, of a generous Council, a Council that works with its people to save facilities, that listens and cooperates; and erased from that narrative is the actual shouting and banner-waving. The language of business and board-rooms is being promoted as the reasonable, effective way of progressing, when in fact, of course, it was that very language that announced the closures, and it was the other, unregulated, irrepressible language of dissent and disgust that shamed the Council into having to reassess their plans.
In the same way that local government - which, here in Manchester, is a Labour-majority Council - is, all over the country, assuming the role of enforcer for the Tory-led central government, local governments have tried to make local communities shoulder the responsibility for the outcomes of the budget. 'If you want your facility, then you show us the sums that will make it work.' By engaging with this process, I think, you're endorsing it. I'm really happy that two of our three facilities won't be shutting, but I fear for the third, and I'll keep complaining. I'll go on demos and sign petitions, and barricade myself in if necessary. What I won't do is congratulate the 'democratic process' of Council negotiations; I will continue to recognise, and hope that other people will join me in recognising, that we'll never change the way things are going if we pitch in with it; we need to take a stand and keep our hands clean and maintain our political integrity at all costs.
(Oh, and they're also planning to close our Sure Start Beehive Centre too. Brilliant.)
This has become a right rant, hasn't it? It's probably rather incoherent, too. I have to go read some academic gubbins now. Have you any thoughts? I'm sure some of my fellow campaigners, if they read this, will disagree rather strongly with much of what I've said. We're not all politically aligned. That's been one of the strengths of the campaign - the diversity of voices involved - but also a difficulty in many ways, and it makes for plenty of one-on-one arguments and frustration. You can't avoid that. But, look, if you are reading, oh-people-who-think-I'm-a-mad-socialist-loon, we're all treading the same ground. I'm just trying to attention to the cracks in the pavement.