Analysis of the “community-led housing” event

Along with several other members of the Friends of Ryebank Fields, I attended the Chorlton “Community Led” Housing Group (CCLHG) event which took place on 4th December 2018, at St. John’s School, right next to Ryebank Fields. (They are wisely not calling it a “consultation”.) This is the minority group that supports the building of homes on Ryebank Fields, which appears to consist of a handful of Labour Party (and ex-Labour) activists. Their report on the event can be found here.

The starting point for the CCLHG, in their own words, is that “MMU are highly likely to be successful in selling the land for housing” (CCLHG Report, p.2). In the view of the Friends of Ryebank Fields, the existence of this group serves only to make this more likely, since opposition to the sell-off of the public land is effectively split. The event was attended by all three local councillors.

According to the CCLHG Report, “The event was held to seek people’s views about the type of housing and community they would ideally like to see on Ryebank Fields.” But it was therefore very strange that the organisers virtually never mentioned Ryebank Fields during the event. It was only when audience members such as myself spoke out against the sell-off that the words Ryebank and Fields were spoken out loud.

At the start of the event, the participants were instructed to get off their seats and arrange themselves against a wall in proximity to “agree”, “disagree” and “don’t know” signs, to reflect their response to various statements about housing and Chorlton. For instance, “It is possible to build houses and protect biodiversity.” No mention of where or when. Apparently, a majority of the audience agreed with this statement. A microphone was handed to various audience members who were invited to explain their views on this topic, some of which were recorded in the report, such as “If green space is being lost then biodiversity can’t be protected.” (p.4)

It was odd that these questions were being asked in the abstract, given that two other sites in Chorlton are being proposed for development (the Chorlton Baths site and the Precinct), and I had these in mind as a lingered mostly near the “don’t know” sign. Other questions related to “downsizing” in Chorlton, the desirability of developments being “car-free”, the cost of eco-housing, and the importance of owning one’s own home.

On page 3 of the Report, it is acknowledged that “Most of the issues were framed to give general feedback rather than specifically related to Ryebank Fields.” This begs the question of why these statements were posed in the abstract. In fact, none of the statements during the opening exercise (which took up about half of the allotted time) mentioned a specific location.

This was then followed by an “opinion carousel”, when we went back to our seated groups, involving questions on flip-chart paper, onto which we were invited to write down our thoughts. In this exercise, some questions were location-specific, such as asking about the school time traffic on Longford Road, or “What kind of natural areas would you like to see added or enhanced on Ryebank Fields?” The responses have been accurately recorded in the report. Responses to this question included, “leave it alone”, “tree tunnel”, “wild flower meadows”, “community allotment”, “bird hide and bat boxes”, etc. (p.10) It was baffling to me that this latter question would be asked by a group that is committed to supporting the sell-off of the land to property developers. (Elsewhere in the country, developers are renowned for ignoring such “green” promises once they get their hands on a prime location.)

Remarkably, the Chorlton Community Led Housing Group Report states in the opening paragraph that “the proposal to build seventy executive-style homes […] is no longer being pursued and that a new Development Framework will be produced for the site.” When was this announcement made and by whom? It seems to indicate that the group has contacts within Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) which it is not being open about.

In the “Next Steps” section of the report (p.12) the group says that they will “reference the exercise and information when seeking to influence the impending Development Framework for Ryebank Fields.” Given that a sizeable chunk of the participants, and of course the much larger Friends of Ryebank Fields group (now comprising over 600 people in the Facebook group, and well over 1,000 having signed our petition) are committed to there being NO DEVELOPMENT on the fields, it seems disingenuous to use the event to promote the idea of development.

The final point under “Next Steps” is to “Discuss and plan further participatory exercises more specifically about Ryebank Fields”. We agree that this needs to happen as a matter of some urgency.

At the start of the CCLHG event back in early December, the very first statement was “The community has a strong voice in Chorlton”, with a large majority opting for the “Don’t know” response. Accordingly, representatives of the Friends of Ryebank Fields group are seeking to set up meetings with the local councillors, and also to meet with the CCLHG members, well in advance of any new Development Framework being created by Manchester City Council officers. Otherwise it will look like local democracy has been entirely undermined. Discussions with the councillors and the Chorlton Community Led Housing Group are ongoing. The community needs a stronger voice, and it needs to be reflected in the Development Framework.

Halfway through the event, I had pointed out to me some examples of children’s artwork that were pinned to the wall near the door. One featured birds and trees, and the words, “Give wildlife a chance”.

Artwork from St John's School

I’m glad such sentiments are being promoted to the children of St. John’s School. How ironic, therefore, that local schools are thus far uninterested in supporting our campaign to save the fields and to protect the biodiversity on their doorstep.

by Nigel Woodcock