THE JOHN MERRY TAPES: Part 1
Two days before Christmas, Salford City Council Leader, John Merry, agreed to an hour long interview with Salford Star editor, Stephen Kingston, to talk about the state of Salford and the upcoming £40million+ cuts. The session went on for over two hours and covered everything from the Salford City Reds stadium deal to Tesco, to the Council's control of community media, to the whole of the city's regeneration.
In this first part we look at whether Salford is developing a two tier city – on one hand money being pumped into prestige projects like MediaCityUK, opera at The Lowry and a new stadium for Salford City Reds, while on the other hand there's a hidden poverty stricken Salford.
We've kept the interview almost unedited, and only changed a few things for legibility.
`Don't you think you'd be better off spending £3million on a bus to Media City?'
Stephen Kingston (SK): When it was the General Election I was getting interviewed by media all over the place saying, `Well the Labour Government hasn't done much for Salford has it?'. I was saying `Well actually that's not quite true because the Labour Government put hundreds of millions of pounds into Salford' – the problem hasn't been the Labour Government because it did put the money in but if you walk around the place, nothing has happened. God knows where that money has gone…
John Merry (JM): I don't accept that. I think changes have taken place and I think on the whole the changes are for the better. If I came in with my statistical report about the new houses that have been built, about the new people who have been brought into Salford and about the fact that we've managed to keep, on the whole, the existing population - because the population of Salford, for the first time, is showing an increase.
SK: It's all very well bringing in new people to dilute the figures - because that's exactly what's happened and they've admitted it…*
JM: Sorry, `dilute the figures', I don't quite get that…
SK: `Dilute the figures' basically means that if you've got poverty on a mass scale and you bring in so-called economically active people, then those people will push down the percentage of things like poor education, health…
JM: Well that's not what I'm looking at. I'm looking at things like improving our schools which did need improving in some respects. And I've been looking at the action we've been taking to improve the proportion of people who are economically active in terms of people who are economically inactive at the moment because that's what I want to try and achieve in Salford.
There's a video that the BNP made which consists of all the Lowry paintings and it said `This is what Salford Council is trying to destroy' – and I actually plead guilty. I am trying to destroy the idea of kids with rickets in the streets, outside toilets and all the rest of it. I want Salford to be a prosperous place for everybody and that's what I'm trying to create
SK: But child poverty levels are 60% (see here)...
JM: Yes but we've just been through a very difficult period
SK: This was happening before that…
JM: We were showing that the percentage of people unemployed was coming down and all the rest of it
SK: The poverty figures and employment statistics we use are your figures (see here)
JM: I can show you other statistics which show an enormous increase in attainment in terms of our young people, an enormous increase in terms of young people going onto university, staying on at 16, all that is actually happening. And the fact remains that what I want to try and achieve is to extend that to everyone to make sure that there are opportunities for everybody.
I can't do that by saying that Salford simply has to stay the same, as I keep repeating to you, and you keep not taking the bait. £8million a year coming into Salford as a result of regeneration activity, £8m in council tax a year, which is £8m a year I can spend on Adult Social Care which I couldn't have spent if the money wasn't coming in.
SK: Come March, or before March, you're going to hold your hands up and say `The Tory Government has cut all the money, we're in a recession, help…'
JM: I'm going to say what this Tory Government is doing to the people of Salford and you'll agree with us as well…
SK: Come March you're going to be saying that there's no more money but then you're going to be writing a cheque out to the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra for £3million plus a cheque for opera at the Lowry for £150,000 (see here)
JM: Well wait and see, yeah…
SK: You've given a £22m loan to the Salford Reds stadium, £3million to the BBC, £150,000 to opera at The Lowry and things – now when you come along and say `We're going to have to cut this service or that service', what do you think people are going to say?
JM: Let's deal with them one by one. Yes we are giving £150,000 on commissioning a world famous opera or whatever you want to call it…
SK: I'm not getting at the actual production
JM: Exactly, and I think it will be something that will actually help in terms of promoting the International Festival and promoting the BBC and promoting Salford in particular. And what we're trying to do…
SK: But if you're going to have to close down this or that or the other, and you're supporting opera…
JM: This is the fundamental difference between us, and I'm always quite surprised by it. I think the BBC coming to Salford is going to make an enormous difference to the local economy of Salford. You don't think so do you?
SK: We're not against it and have never said that, just the way it's being done…
JM: I don't think you're against it but I don't think you think that it will have the effect I think it's actually going to have, a galvanising affect…
SK: I think that MediaCityUK is going to be an island and everything I've seen so far shows that – you can't even get a bus there. Wouldn't you be better off spending £3million on a bus?
JM: We actually want to make money out of the BBC's link with Salford, of course we do, and we think that this is an investment that is worthwhile in order to bring the BBC to Salford, and I think we're already beginning to see that. I know you said the Coronation Street studio is not coming but everything else is coming to Media City – the BBC, new properties are being built as we speak on the Quays which bring in council tax.
I was optimistic that we'd get the business rates from the properties on the Quays, the government didn't give us it but Eric Pickles says he is going to give us the business rates from new properties. But even if we don't, the employment opportunity that has been created will bring Salford people jobs. You challenged me about the 1500 jobs – I produced statistics to show the 1500
SK: We put it on the website and got comments about loads of people from East Europe working there – did they all have Salford addresses?
JM: Whatever, the fact remains that I'm telling you 1500 people with Salford addresses were working on that site and I'm telling you that there will be thousands eventually who will be working at Media City – and people like yourself will benefit from it. I'll come back to you in ten year's time and ask you if you've benefitted
SK: Ten years? I'll probably be dead by then given the mortality rates here…
JM: Ok five years time, and ask you if you've benefitted from the BBC being down here because I think you will.
SK: Not me. Maybe my kids but I can't see that and neither can they....
`Let's take Ordsall...'
SK: If you look at where all the Council's resources are going you've got the Ordsall Waterfront, Irwell River Park , the greening of Guy Fawkes St – a ridiculous amount of money, over £200,000
JM: Look, we get a lot of money in additional grants and the fact remains that all of that will bring economic development along that front.
SK: What you've got in Ordsall…
JM: Actually LPC [developers] have got a good reputation in Ordsall when I talk to people down there – have you not found that?
SK: What I'm trying to say is that people will see...particularly in Ordsall, you've got a triangle and around the outside you've got multi coloured houses and the waterfront and all that, and the new Oasis Academy and Media City on the other side. But in the middle of all that you've got one of the most deprived communities, certainly in Salford. It's almost like you're hiding them in the middle…(see here)
JM: I want to see them benefit from the activity that's going on around them – I don't see it as hiding them. I see them as being part of what is being created down there and I don't think LPC think otherwise either. I think Warren [Smith- chairman of LPC Living] is absolutely committed to the idea of Ordsall as a place and trying to promote that
SK: On one hand you're going `Cuts cuts cuts, it's going to be awful' and on the other all this money is going towards these prestige projects.
JM: Let's take Ordsall for example. Yes the fact that we're having these cuts is awful but we can get access to some money still for capital development to take place so we can't just stop that. If we stop that then Salford stops growing and Salford will go backwards and that's what we're concerned about. So no, I don't think it's contradictory. I think it's part and parcel of what we're trying to do – we're trying to give the place a future in the end.
`Let's look at the Salford Reds Stadium...'
SK: Let's look at the Salford Reds Stadium - you've given it land worth £6.7m, a £22m loan, and the North West Development Agency has given them £4m for land remediation…that's over £30m quid, yeah?
SK: The £22m loan is unsupported borrowing or prudential borrowing but Salford is now up to its peak of unsupported borrowing – is it £100m?
JM: Something quite high…
SK: …but the government was saying on the telly the other night – `Oh councils can always use their unsupported borrowing to get their way out of the recession'
SK: Yet now you've got no slack at all
JM: No – that's perfectly true but can I just explain on the unsupported borrowing, right, we're expecting the stadium company to reimburse us for that unsupported borrowing, so they will be paying…
SK: You're assuming people are going to go and watch them… [more on this later]
"Do we look at reduced opening hours or do we even close the odd sports centre or the odd library to actually make the saving?"
SK: So when the cuts come and you have to make a decision…
JM: We've made £19m of decisions already and I'm moving onto the next stage of it now. In the £19m there are things that are a reduced level of service for things like recycling, cutting back only once a month. There's a number of people who have taken early voluntary retirement. And all of the stuff we've been providing for support in schools, an awful lot of that is at risk, because the government has cut back on Area Based Grants.
All of that work, and a lot of work we've been doing on diversionary activity on law and order the government has cut all that, and we're trying to see what we can rescue from the wreckage. So there's some huge tranches that have already gone and what we're trying to do is, having got that £19m, is we're going to have to go for the next £21m.
Some of those things you might welcome. Things like cutting back on marketing and cutting back on some of the events we sponsor, all of that will have to go. But even when I take that out it's still a drop in the ocean in comparison to what is actually going to happen at this next stage.
And there are things like social care – how do we wrestle with the dilemma of social care, because I know you've said that parts of this have been a crap service (see here) and I do agree incidentally that we've not provided the best possible service in all of the providers that we've used. But nevertheless the criteria that we use…Let's take Trafford, for example. Trafford only deal with severe and critical cases, we deal with people who have moderate problems which means we start at a far lower base in terms of intervention than Trafford. And I think that's right. And I'm fighting like mad to keep that to see what economies we can make to keep it.
The decisions we're going to have to take are `What are we going to do about the youth service? What about social care? What do we do about what remains of the support we provide for schools? What do we do about cleaning the streets? What do we do about environmental health?' All those are questions that we're pondering at the moment.
SK: I've seen a letter from Salford Community Leisure talking of 30% reduction in libraries and sports?
JM: We've taken a chunk of money out and the question is what does that mean? Do we look at reduced opening hours or do we even close the odd sports centre or the odd library to actually make the saving?
SK: The mobile library?
JM: I'd like to keep it going but again it's something that's problematic. One thing we've done is cut back 10% on community committee budgets
SK: Again, people are going to say that you've cut back on social care yet you're giving the BBC orchestra £3m – have you cut back on that?
JM: It's one of the things we are discussing at the moment. There is a change in the sponsorship arrangement, wait and see.
SK: You've cut £100,000 off The Lowry – and then given £150,000 for an opera there. So what would you say to people in Salford about the government cuts?
JM: They said we'd only have to cut by 8.9% this year. It's nonsense because they also took off something called the Area Based Grant. They chopped all of that with a few exceptions so our cuts look like 11.5-12% this year and that's where the real damage has been done. And basically if you look at that compared to say Surrey – Surrey is getting a rise in its income and we're getting a 12% cut.
SK: You're going to lose quite a lot of money personally from this because a lot of the quangos where you were a paid director have been chopped.
JM: I'm not complaining about what I lose personally and at the Council I don't think I've seen a pay rise for three years. One of the things we're looking at, for example, is car parking charges for staff and we're going to relate it to people's ability to be able to pay. And I will pay more for that, so yes there is a significant loss of income for me too.
* Countryside Properties, in its planning application for `New Broughton' stated quite clearly that "By introducing more market housing, which is generally occupied by a greater proportion of economically active people, there is likely to be an overall improvement in the health of the residential population of the area."
Does the health of the people who used to live in `Old Broughton' improve? No. Do the statistics improve? Yes. It's called diluting a community and its problems. (taken from Salford Star Dec 2009 see here)
Photo of John Merry at MediaCityUK with Peter Mandelson, Hazel Blears, John Whittaker (Peel Holdings), Brian Gray (MediaCityUK) and apprentices, by Steven Speed
See The John Merry Interview: Part 2 here
The John Merry Interview Part 3 here