Article published: Friday, November 20th 2009
Businesses in the centre of Manchester must wish it could be Christmas every day. Or to be more precise, that the Christmas shopping period came more frequently. They got an early present of their own this week, when the Council proudly announced it will be providing city-centre shops with a free marketing campaign worth £600,000.
You would be forgiven for asking whether, given the burgeoning social housing waiting list – 23,000 in Manchester alone at last count – there could be better ways of spending public money.
You might also ask whether the chain stores which fill the city centre – and their billionaire owners – should pay for their own advertising, given that they keep the profits.
The project was commissioned by Cityco, a rather mysterious organisation which seems to blur the lines between democratically elected leaders and the large companies operating in the city. It basically lobbies the council – it is “well connected and influential with the people that matter” and apparently “the more you pay the better the access to power” – for the benefit of large local businesses (and rids the city centre of loiterers). It has “visions for Manchester” and helps co-ordinate the vast network of security cameras and security guards running the £3 million CCTV network from offices on Portland Street.
And who is it financed by? Well…the Council for one. Accounts obtained from Companies House earlier this year reveal that Manchester City Council has given the company free office space inside Manchester Town Hall, two members of staff paid for with council taxpayers’ money and over half a million for “undisclosed services”. Salford City Council also voluntarily gives Cityco money.
Furthermore, the executive board of the company contains four members of the City Council: Cllr Pat Karney, Chief Executive Sir Howard Bernstein and his deputy Steve Mycio, and Council Leader Sir Richard Leese (not to mention Salford City Council Leader John Merry). They sit alongside representatives from of the cities biggest companies including developers Bruntwood, retail giant Marks and Spencer and Manchester Arndale.
Unsurprisingly then, the Council agree with Cityco Chief Exec Kate Harrison, that the best way of tackling the current economic crisis is through “ensuring city centre businesses get the most out of the crucial Christmas period”. Just in case there was not enough pressure to spend at Christmas, the advertising firms commissioned for the project have created a TV advert, posters, a shopping-orientated map of the city centre and even limited edition wrapping paper designed by Factory Records founder Peter Saville – a bargain at just three quid for just two meters (if you have money throw away).
CityCo argue that extravagant Christmas spending is vital for rejuvenating the economy. Leaving aside the fact that retail jobs are among the lowest paid and least secure around, and the fact that profits will for the most part be taken out of the region, perhaps it will keep a few shop fronts from being boarded up.
But what’s the underlying logic here? The pressure to spend big at Christmas brings misery for many. A study carried out by the mental health charity MIND, found that 19 per cent of people found it difficult to manage their mental health because of the stress induced by debts incurred over Christmas. Research from moneysupermarket.com found that two thirds of the population will have to take on debt to cover Christmas costs.
Debt is at the heart of what’s now the longest recession since records began. To keep the economy growing over recent decades, as the manufacturing industry left seeking cheap labour overseas, it was necessary for ordinary people to take on debt to fuel a boom in the property market and consumer spending. Now that the bubble has burst, and the costs of the recession are passed onto ordinary people through wage freezes, public service cutbacks, redundancies and bank bailouts, the Council are encouraging more debt uptake. Was nothing learnt from when the last bubble burst, or are the Council and Cityco simply that fond of blowing?
There is a pressing need to question the uncomfortably close relationship between some of Manchester’s biggest corporate players and its democratic body. This means challenging the assumption – reiterated in the entirety of the local media – that what is good for corporate interests is good for the city. Merry fucking Christmas.
Michael Pooler, Andy Bowman and Andy Lockhart
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