Tomorrow (Tuesday), the City Mayor is due to make a formal decision on handing £300,000 to the Biospheric Foundation's urban farm project in Blackfriars, part of total costs of £400,000 for the Manchester International Festival `event'.
Before the decision has been formally made by the City Mayor, however, the Council has issued a press release titled `Growing Peas In Former Print Works', announcing that it "is providing £300,000 in sponsorship for the project".
The contract was never put out to public tender so the many food growing groups in Salford couldn't apply for the money, and nowhere publicly are the costs broken down for what the funding is actually being spent on. A Council report merely states that "the Mayor is asked to agree that the detail of the contractual arrangements be delegated to the Chief Executive".
Hard up Salford Council is currently struggling with a budget deficit of £4million and expects to make more cuts after the ConDem Government announces its autumn spending review this week.
The Council meeting that is to decide the foregone conclusion funding is the `Regeneration Briefing' of the City Mayor, Ian Stewart. This is the same `Briefing' which last week agreed to demolish the blue Salford Quays Cargo Cranes (see here). The suspicion is that at least part of the money saved by trashing the cranes is being spent on `Growing Peas In Former Print Works'.
The Council report giving details of the urban farm merely states that the £300,000 funding "exists within 2012/13 Capital & Revenue Budgets in the Chief Executives Regeneration Portfolio and from Public Health non-recurrent funding 2012/13".
Last week, as well as questioning the ethics of announcing the £300,000 `sponsorship' before a decision has been formally made, the Salford Star also put the following questions to Salford Council…
1. Was this contract ever put out to tender?
2. Can we see a breakdown of the costs involved?
3. Can we see the contractual details please?
4. Has the £300,000 Council funding, or any part of it, been taken from the money earmarked for the Salford Quays Cranes restoration?
Salford Council has, of course, so far refused to answer. Instead, the Manchester International Festival's Jennifer Cleary, Director of Creative Learning, did speak to the Star…
First she explained what the Biospheric Foundation's project is actually about…
"It's about transforming a disused space into a sort of prototype urban farm project, a really unique project which has got a range of outputs from food products, to research, to enterprise, to community training and skills" she said "It's about turning that space which is unused at the moment into something productive which explores new ways of looking at food production within the local community."
She added that there are three elements to the project. The first is the development of the site at Irwell House, which is currently owned, we believe, by Urban Splash. This will include an `edible forest and garden' outside, plus an indoor and rooftop food production facility.
There's also a `public programme of activities' during the actual Manchester International Festival in June and July next year, and a `community engagement programme', which began last weekend (and continues next weekend), with volunteers being asked to dig the ground and plant trees… "It's something that is really rooted in the community" Jennifer Cleary insists.
The total cost of £400,000 seems a hell of a lot – what is it being spent on?
"There's lots of new experiments around food production that bring various parts of the community together, so there's lots of different parties involved with a view to developing enterprise and employment opportunities, and training and skills" she replies "It's a long term project."
Yes, but what is the money being spent on – is it mainly salaries?
"As you can imagine, developing that sort of project has a whole range of different things, so there's the development of the forest garden, the installation of particular food systems, delivery of the training and delivery of the programme activities, there's all sorts of things involved" she says "It's a big project…"
Yes but the people we've spoken to who are involved in allotments and things can't believe how much it's costing, because if you're planting potatoes or peas or whatever, that doesn't actually cost anything but a seed…
"It's not just about planting peas!"
That's what the Council's put out in its press release…
"It's not an allotment site, it's a building with a whole range of different things, and it's about making the building accessible" she says "Of course there are project management fees associated with the project but there are a whole range of different materials and types of activities – the training, the public programme, the forest garden, the fencing. It's something that's going to be there for a very long time."
We understand that the building is owned by Urban Splash – are they giving it rent free or is some of this money paying for the rent?
"We're not involved in the rent, the Biospheric Foundation has the building on rent and that's a relationship between Biospheric and Urban Splash."
So, none of this money is going to Urban Splash?
"We'll support some of the project overheads in supporting Vincent [Walsh, Director of Biospheric] and his team but we're supporting them in terms of their project management and what they are trying to do over the next three or four years" she replies "Vincent's a really interesting character and his research is being spoken about as one of the 100 big ideas to affect the future.
"He's been trying to galvanise a range of partners to achieve this vision which is about building sustainable futures in Salford and giving the community access to really healthy fresh food and to learn how to produce their own food themselves" she adds "I think it's really exciting."
But you're not answering the question about Urban Splash…
"I think it's a really innovative project putting Salford alongside other cities with really innovative growing projects. It's a really positive thing."
We don't think anybody is actually knocking the project itself but can you understand that, with Salford Council giving it £300,000 when it's actually making cuts to public services, it seems very strange to people. Can you understand that?
"I think it's a question for Salford Council" Jennifer responds "We presented them with a proposal and I think they're quite convinced on the impact the work will have. For me the investment in the project is investment in a long term local engagement project, with the grass roots community helping people to positively change their attitudes to food. I think there's a wealth of different impacts for individuals and groups and projects. That's how I see it."
So, still no questions answered about how the £300,000 funding was allocated, what the funding is actually being spent on, whether part of it is merely paying the rent to Urban Splash, and, indeed, whether any part of it has been taken from the money earmarked for the Salford Quays Cranes restoration.
In the absence of any direct Salford Council answers, however, we can quote Salford City Mayor, Ian Stewart from the `Growing Peas In Former Print Works' press release issued by Salford Council before the £300,000 funding decision has been formally made…
"Encouraging people to grow and eat their own produce" he says "while showcasing Salford as supporting innovative, cutting edge research as part of this major international festival is money well spent."
* For the full Salford Council report to tomorrow's Regeneration Briefing which will, er, decide on the £300,000 `sponsorship' click here