Mad Lab, elected officials and community activists

By Rachael Turner, MadLab

MadLab is based in a 3000 square foot former terrace of three weaver’s cottages based in the Northern Quarter of Manchester. We’re a curated community centre – hosting 64 self-organised groups, a pioneer of the ‘do it yourself biology’ (DIYBio) movement, a provider of formal and informal adult education (from courses led by the founder of WordPress to octopus dissection) and a collaborator in projects ranging from digital tools for the homeless to IT skills provision for unemployed women. We have over 10,000 annual users from a broad spectrum of society, and over 7500 Twitter followers. We recently put in a successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘All Our Stories’ scheme, called The Ghosts of St Paul’s which focuses on Manchester’s Industrial heritage, specifically that of the Northern Quarter (formerly St Paul’s).

Our community of artists and engineers is well used to looking into the future and building what we see. But we were fascinated earlier this year to discover that our home has an important past – one of only a handful of the area’s once-characteristic weavers’ cottages to survive (‘Living in the Industrial City’ Dr Michael Nevell, University of Salford). The parallel between early industrialists and their modern-day counterparts resonated strongly with our community. We’re interested in the similarities (the spirit of invention, using cutting-edge technology to transform the world) and the differences between us and our neighbourhood as it once was.

AOS has given us the opportunity to explore our roots – the forgotten lives whose industrial legacy we’ve inherited – and we’re sharing what we’ve learned MadLab-style (projection mapping, hacker days, field recording and through the use of open data) by building inventions that will bring our heritage back to life for the whole area. As I write this, I’m currently organising a two-day industrial revolution themed hackday with the renowned inventor, Mitch Altman from Noisebridge in San Francisco which will form part of our AOS activity.

As MadLab’s director I frequently work with elected officials – on both a formal and informal basis. For example, we have attracted ERF funding via Manchester Digital Development Agency (part of the city council) and have also assisted Salford’s Assistant Mayor for Development, Steven Coen, by hosting an event at William Crabtree’s former home (now his) to celebrate the Transit of Venus (see the orange text box halfway down this link for further info).

These relationships work well. But there are other parts of both Manchester and Salford City councils that we find harder to access and engage with. I’m currently working out how to engage MadLab – and our diverse communities – in a more effective and dynamic manner.

An example of a heritage issue that has really caught the attention our community has been the issue of trees being felled in Alexandra Park in Whalley Range – an issue the HLF is itself involved in.

It’s a £5.5m improvement scheme, creating 7000 square metres of new planting, including 100 new trees. Two hundred and fifty trees out of a total of 1600 in the Park have been cut down. “We’re delivering a much better park and a much better amenity” said Eddie Flanagan of Manchester City Council earlier this year.

The response to the tree felling from amongst the local community was huge. I received many emails, tweets and Facebook messages asking for help in stopping the felling. Sites like savealexdraparkstrees.wordpress.com sprung up, the protests were featured in local media and on the BBC and a campaign was started on change.org that garnered over 4000 signatures:

“Around 400 trees that have been a feature of the park for 30-136 years are going to be felled and 3.3 acres of wildlife habitat destroyed to be replaced with flower beds and 6 tennis courts. Alexandra Park has always been a necessary green oasis for wildlife and people in a built up urban area. Please sign the petition to show Manchester City council and Heritage Lottery Fund how many people object and to save these beautiful trees!” (change.org petition)

On the other hand, Jonathan Schofield of Manchester Confidential saw it like this:

“To outsiders it’s curious how such an eminently worthwhile and seemingly uncontroversial aspect of city life such as spending millions on a neglected park can lead to conflict. But maybe that’s par for the course at present. Maybe there’s something else at work. People have – if council election figures are anything to go by – become divorced from the straightforward democratic process of voting in representatives and then going along with the decisions made by them. Have for example the protesters at Alexandra Park all voted in recent local council elections?”


Thoughts: But should not voting (or voting for that matter) in local council elections determine whether a citizen has the power and the means to affect change? Or does voting negate the possibility for further engagement on decision making?

Another recent issue was that of the enclosure of the ‘Library Walk’ in the city centre – an open-air passage between the library and council buildings which is going to be covered, much to the chagrin of many Manchester residents.
The council is going to gate and glass-over an open-air walkway between the City Library and Town Hall buildings. They say that it is unlit and dangerous.

Protestors (including some local press) said: “it’s aesthetically wrong … and not needed.” They argued that a cheaper solution would be to light it. The cost of the Ian Simpson-designed scheme is £3.5m. In times of swingeing council cuts, people argue that it’s hugely wasteful.

The Friends of Library Walk Campaign and the thousands of online signatures garnered made no impact on the planning committee which was reported as follows in Manchester Confidential:

The whole public nature of the (planning) committee meeting is a sop to say “hey, look, aren’t we accountable?”

Manchester Confidential concluded that the planning committee had:

“Steam-rolled local democracy.” Councillors present at the meeting asked questions about how the glass would be cleaned or why glass was chosen as a material between two buildings constructed in different styles.

The scheme has been approved by the city council and construction will commence soon.

Thoughts: Members of the public are being presented with decisions that have already been dealt with internally at a council level and thus arrive too late in the day to usually be able to effect any changes. The decision-making has already been done. Also, do the councilors truly understand the issues at stake from a community perspective (and otherwise)? Councilors may feel powerless to complain about the machinations of the council (witnessed at a recent scrutiny committee).

Another heritage issue that we get approached about is The Old Fire Station development, close to Piccadilly train station, a building that’s been empty for as long as I’ve lived in Manchester (over 14 years). English Heritage supported Britannia Hotels in their successful appeal against a Manchester City Council Compulsory Purchase Order in 2011 on the basis their scheme to turn the derelict building into a hotel would be ‘minimum intervention’ and that building and the pursuit of listed status would swiftly follow. Britannia has now changed elements of the scheme – to include a tower – which has kicked the project back into the long grass, whilst they ‘explore options.’

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