Today the British Conservative Party begins its annual conference in Manchester. At first sight things have been going well for Manchester recently. But one result of improvements to the city’s image as a place to do business, study at university, live, and have fun, in a metropolis that doesn’t sleep very much, is that property values are still booming and rents far higher than when I came from London to live here in 1996. As a recent National Audit Office report showed, the downside of Manchester’s success is an increase in families living in temporary accommodation and rough sleeping on the streets that is very much higher than that of other major cities in the UK. Given that homelessness is rising everywhere, Manchester’s exceptionally bad situation is extremely preoccupying.
As is the case with most areas of government policy these days, there are disputes about the real numbers (with most commentators suggesting that official figures underestimate the scale of the problems). But delegates at the Conservative Party Conference can easily do their own reality check just by walking around the centre of the city. There are rough sleepers and people begging everywhere, on a scale that we longer-term city residents know is unprecedented. But these are only the most publicly visible symptoms of much wider problems.
This Conservative Party conference seems likely to be exceptionally lively. Clinging to power with the aid of Ulster’s Democratic Unionists, Theresa May’s government is beset by internal divisions over Brexit, public sector pay and many other issues. But when we look at who is being left behind in Manchester’s recent success, especially if we venture out beyond the city centre and look at the poverty that exists in less favoured areas of the metropolis, recent expert criticisms of the conservative government’s attempts to “reform” the welfare system seem particularly relevant. There may be desirable principles behind the new Universal Credit system, which combines previously separate benefits in a single payment (albeit with the downside of requiring claimants to struggle with online systems). Yet the fairness of the way that the Universal Credit system is pursuing another of its aims, that of making work, however precarious and badly paid, more attractive than staying on benefits, is widely questioned. There is also a widespread consensus outside government that the Universal Credit rollout has already caused some serious immediate harm to vulnerable families and children and threatens worse in the longer term. Yet despite growing calls to rethink the system’s implementation before more damage is done, Theresa May is standing firm on this one. The prime minister is willing to recognise that there have been problems and that they need to be addressed. But today’s edition of the flagship Conservative newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, reports that she is insisting that Universal Credit will continue to be “rolled out” as planned despite requests for a pause to allow further adjustments from at least a dozen members of parliament from her own party.
What is happening in Manchester reflects the underlying exclusionary social dynamics of neoliberal urbanism throughout the world. Major UK cities are clearly manifesting the effects of lack of effective affordable housing policies, privatisation of public services, cuts to local authority budgets, inadequate rent control, and too many green lights for property developers. The Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in London revealed a much more general situation of cost-cutting induced risk that demonstrated that the safety and lives of poorer people have been counting for little in the ways local government has been tackling its responsibilities in recent years. In Spain, the problems of lack of jobs, unpayable rents, and expulsion of poor families from central zones of cities provoked a kind of citizens’ revolt, as major metropolitan cities voted coalitions of the alternative Left into power as a protest against the austerity inflicted by a conservative national government and the established political parties, including the social democratic PSOE (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party). But both Spain and the UK raise the issue of how much can really be done at the local level. The new Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has made tackling homelessness and rough sleeping a priority, but what he can achieve in practice still depends on what ten local councils, including Manchester City Council, can do. Their leaders point out that national government welfare policies combined with rising rents are making their task ever harder, with no respite in sight.
It is, to put it mildly, unfortunate that Manchester, a Labour stronghold, was one of the places where local labour candidates, including Burnham, tried to disassociate themselves as much as possible from Jeremy Corbyn during the last election. Now that Corbyn has demonstrated that opposing austerity is a popular cause, established real communication with voters, and foregrounded a radical alternative to the Conservatives on housing and social policy, hopefully this timid and self-serving stance will change. Manchester Labour needs a Labour government in Westminster. If that new Labour government recognises, as I think it will under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, that Labour, like other social democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere, has in the past been complicit in the production of the inequalities and exclusions of contemporary urban development, Manchester’s future will be a lot brighter.