For the second time in as many years, the south Manchester neighbourhood of Levenshulme where I live, has faced the closure of vital public facilities. This time, the library and swimming pool have been targeted. Both these facilities are community hubs which bring people in a diverse, and in many ways disadvantaged, community together. To continue to build cohesion and understanding in our community, we need these spaces. In an economic context, where literate, educated, skilled people are the key to our future growth as a city, closing the library seems a perverse decision. In an area with some of the worst health outcomes in the city, where health services are stretched and we desperately need to encourage people to take responsibility for their own health, closing down the swimming pool seems obscene. The context of these closures is that Manchester is facing one of the toughest and most unfair financial settlements for local government which has been compounded by the loss of substantial deprivation linked funding. Many in Levenshulme feel that the proposal to close our local facilities is not only short-termist, but is self-defeating.
The anger in the community has been directed in a sustained, vibrant, thoughtful and provocative campaign to save our facilities, which has engaged hundreds of people. Yesterday, a flash mob of dancers from Levenshulme wearing masks of council leader Sir Richard Leese’s face performed a routine outside Manchester Town Hall proclaiming a ‘Lev-olution’. Last week, local people held a ‘beach party’ protest outside the pool before occupying it into the night. These actions followed months of well-attended demonstrations, occupations, vigils, petitions, fundraising events and public meetings which have attracted extensive local and national media coverage. These actions reflect the importance not only of persistence – a similarly vital community effort saved the swimming baths and sports hall in 2011 – but also of a sense of humour in mobilising people. We documented similar approaches in our recent INLOGOV pamphlet, ‘Beyond the State – Mobilising and Co-Producing with Communities’.
Today sees both – in a timetable which has generated a somewhat cynical interpretation in the community – the ending of the consultation by Manchester City Council on proposals for a new community hub in Levenshulme to open in Autumn 2014 and the debate of these proposals in full council. These proposals now have an amendment, tabled by local councillors following local pressure, to work with community groups to explore whether a viable business plan can be developed to allow our existing facilities to remain open until replacement facilities are available. Teams of local people are actively working to find a way to make this happen.
The council has been unable or unwilling – until demanded to by the community campaign – to communicate with the communities in Levenshulme and unable to – until led by the community –find a way to work in collaboration to find community-based solutions to dealing with unprecedented cuts to public services. Hopefully, the inspiring community campaign in Levenshulme adds another example of how local authorities can begin to learn to do local politics differently.
Catherine Durose is Director of Research at INLOGOV. Catherine is interested in the restructuring of relationships between citizens, communities and the state. Catherine is currently advising the Office of Civil Society’s evaluation of the Community Organisers initiatives and leading a policy review for the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme on re-thinking local public services.