Manchester: The Context

Forget the pundits. You need no sympathy or apologia for the criminality of the last few days to acknowledge that crime does not happen in a vacuum. Youth service cuts did not cause the riots, but youth clubs are still a good thing, in and of themselves. This week I’ve read two interesting pieces, one by Manchester musician Dave Haslam and another by the editors of far left magazine Manchester Mule. I don’t agree with all their points, but their state of the city analysis is essential.

The city centre is a ferocious concentration of wealth and power, manifested in Urban Splash complexes and Trafford Centre-style retail farms. Rent hikes forced more and more citizens into the crime, violence and corrosion of the outer listlands. We have one paper, a pious crusader tabloid that is out of step with the needs, hopes and dreams of most people in the city: and establishment creative industries that still think it’s the Summer of Love, ’91.

The statistics make bad reading. According to the Mule, 27% of Manchester’s children grow up in severe poverty – the highest level in the nation. Each year six thousand will be expelled from Manchester’s schools. Our teenage pregnancy rate is twice the national average, our life expectancy is the lowest in England. 28% of 16-24 year olds in this city are unemployed. Oh, and we’re the self harm capital of Europe. Top banana, indeed.

Dave Haslam, when giving talks on Manchester’s regeneration, says that he’s sometimes ‘tempted to edit out’ what he calls the ‘and yet’ paragraphs. This is the problem. As a city we had to struggle to recover from the disaster of Thatcherism and then the IRA bomb in ’96. Northern chippiness combined with civic boosterism in a lethal silence. It is what my friend Jerry Cornelius calls the ‘Confidence Fairy’: if we keep banging on about the boring old social indices (the unspoken catechism goes) investors will be scared off, our fragile resurgence will collapse and the social problems will get even worse. Better to keep quiet, rattle the pennant, demolish half of Salford for another shopping complex, put a few more bouncers on the Printworks doors – anything but confront the bad side of our city, and the people that missed out on the boom.

I’m not running the place down, I love my city and its renaissance is undeniable. It’s clear however that we have outlived the luxury of backslapping, and should ask ourselves hard questions. Commerce and regen cash flowed like the rain of this rainy city during the boom years. Why then do we have these shocking levels of poverty and ignorance? Why are expectations so low? Why, in other words, do so many people in Manchester live bitter and unhappy lives? What will become of us now that the money has run out and the austerity grind has kicked in?

It’s a real shame that it has taken the actions of a hundred or so vicious morons to put this on the agenda.


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