On the Great Ancoats Street Swindle of summer 2019

[This is an extended version of an article commissioned by The Meteor in their series on Manchester City Council’s calls for greater community engagement: that piece can be viewed here]

In June 2019, Manchester City Council (“MCC”) announced that it was soon to commence work on transforming Great Ancoats Street (“GAS”) into what it was marketing as a “European-style boulevard”. However, once you actually look at the visualisations, you see a very British 4-5 lane urban freeway with some trees planted down the middle and – crucially – no protected cycle lanes. OK, some of the proposed crossings across GAS made life easier for those on foot or cycle (though some were worse), but to omit cycle lanes along this key route was seen by many as deeply remiss in 2019.

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Proposed Great Ancoats Street improvements: official visualisation by Manchester City Council.

As so often, Twitter was the platform where dissent over the scheme incubated. Every missive output by MCC’s beleaguered comms team returned a hundred versions of same question: “why no bike lanes?” Among MCC’s many excuses, not a single credible reason: “Bike lanes cause congestion and rat-running” (they don’t if managed properly); “This isn’t funded by the Bee Network [fund for improving walking and cycling provision across the region]” (it shouldn’t have to be: MCC pledged to place cycling and walking at the heart of all infrastructure projects, no matter who’s paying); “We mustn’t affect motor vehicle flows” (first: why not given the manifold woes around excessive motor vehicle traffic in the city?; and second: you can still have bike lanes on this route without troubling the poor motorist). Etc.

Additionally, alternative versions of the GAS works were mooted:

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Artist’s impression of GAS with a bi-directional bike lane, maintaining four carriageway lanes, trees and pedestrian footway.

As the disquiet grew, a couple of us decided to take the matter offline and organise some old-fashioned, real-world protest. A petition was launched, securing over 1,000 signatures to date, and we organised a cycling go-slow along GAS, dubbed “The Great Ancoats Street Swindle”, which was attended by hundreds of riders and attracted widespread coverage in press and broadcast media (such as the Manchester Evening News and ITV Granada News). Public opinion was broadly in favour of installing bike lanes when a road is redone, whether the person asked cycles or not. Indeed, shortly after the protest, early drawings of the scheme by TfGM emerged that included safe cycle lanes with minimal impact on motor flows. As part of our initiatives, a dedicated band of urban planners, highways engineers etc. sympathetic to the cause drew up their own version of GAS with safe cycle lanes, which were the subject of the blog post On how Great Ancoats Street could look if it were done properly, or: there is plenty of scope for bike lanes if you actually wanted them.

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Community-driven alternative proposal for GAS accommodating cars, cycles and pedestrians.

Both of these sets of plans suggested this wasn’t really an argument about space and traffic, but something else.

On the back of this momentum, we requested an emergency meeting of Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Forum so that relevant councillors could field questions from an engaged and interested public. We were somewhat surprisingly told that the Forum isn’t the correct platform for such a discussion (why that should be is a question many of us are still waiting for an answer to), and instead a private one-hour meeting was arranged. Attendees were Mandie Shilton-Godwin (Chair of the Forum), Angeliki Stogia (who holds the Environment, Planning and Transport brief at MCC) and Richard Elliot from the Highways team, with three active travel campaigners representing the citizens of Manchester.

At this meeting no progress was made at all. MCC stuck to their original position, basically saying it was too late in the day to make any substantive changes, plus at some as yet undetermined future point there’ll be some new cycle routes vaguely nearby that people can ride on if they want (MCC insist on calling these “parallel routes”. Have a look at their schematic below and decide for yourself). They refused to go into why the early GAS plans with bike lanes were discarded, and were indifferent to our alternative designs. One area of agreement was that the original consultation had been inadequate and that that needs to be significantly improved in future. The meeting ended with MCC imploring us to work with them and support future walking and cycling schemes, to which our – predictable – response was that we will if they’re any good. Carry on in this vein, though, and we’ll continue to be a thorn in their side. The meeting notes can be downloaded here.

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MCC’s proposed “parallel” routes to GAS that they are planning to build one day. The wide, straight desire line in the centre is GAS. In MCC’s mind this direct route should be reserved for cars while bikes literally go round the houses.

The same week also saw the GAS scheme referred back to MCC’s Neighbourhoods and Environment Scrutiny Committee (“NESC”) given the poor standard of the initial consultation. Councillor Stogia appeared before the NESC to defend the scheme and the consultation exercise, but was soundly rebuked by the Chair of the NESC, who referred the scheme back to undergo a more thorough consultation process. Minutes are available here. We considered this a substantial victory and for a brief moment dared to hope that the scheme would be paused to enable proper consultation and a potential rethink. However, this referral merely revealed another serious deficit in MCC’s governance structures: all that happened was that the referral landed on the desk of the member in charge of the relevant portfolio for a final decision on how to proceed. The relevant member here is, wait for it… Stogia herself, and naturally she simply binned the referral. And that was the end of that. No further avenue for recourse.

To summarise: we did everything we could to work with MCC on this. We canvassed public support, we made a strong case on social and broadcast media, we even drew up viable, alternative plans to show that what we wanted could be achieved, and not least the level of noise we made around the issue was a significant factor in one of MCC’s own committees rebuking the way the scheme had been handled and demanding that work be halted until the public had been properly consulted. And the outcome? MCC bulldozed its way through all of these obstacles and is getting its way despite all reservations, objections, public opinion and credible alternative options. GAS will be redone without bike lanes, and people cycling on it will be exposed to unacceptable, disproportionate levels of risk. When Mr. Leese claims he wants to reach out and invite public engagement, does he really just mean he wants people to rubber-stamp pre-decided plans? Or is he actually prepared to listen? Our experience on GAS very much suggests a council that is used to the former. Never mind their fine pronouncements on the climate emergency: we’ll continue to judge them by their deeds.

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Sometimes satire sits a little too close to reality.

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1 Response

  1. Scott says:

    Councils and councillors need help to cross the chasm from climate/liveability pronouncements to actual change. All I can think is “hurry the fuck up” and then to read about this…. Thanks Nick for putting it all down.

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