Closure expected to bring disruption - but businesses welcome protest

Strolling down the broad thoroughfare on a sunny morning, shops still emblazoned with Pride rainbows, it is hard to believe that Deansgate is one of the most polluted streets in the UK, with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide. Delivery trucks and taxis ply their trades while the occasional flash car makes an obvious play for attention.

So far so normal, but from tomorrow it could look very different. According to Greater Manchester Police, Deansgate will be occupied from 7.30am August 30 until Monday 2 September. The main camp will be outside House of Fraser and the protest will concentrate on the northern end of Deansgate but could spread along the whole street.

you have the right to protest lawfully but any illegal activity will be dealt with accordingly

After protests across the country, Manchester has been chosen as the next location for Extinction Rebellion to drive home their message about climate emergency. Extinction Rebellion has three core demands: for the government to "tell the truth about climate change"; to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025; and to create a citizens' assembly to oversee progress.

2019 08 29 Xr Climate
The camp will be outside House of Fraser

Claire from Extinction Rebellion Manchester said: “Most Greater Manchester boroughs and the GM Combined Authority have now declared a climate emergency. Every policy, including transport, is now supposed to consider its effects on our climate crisis and help cut carbon emissions.

“Yet despite these statements little seems to change and we’re barely scratching the surface of the cuts we need to make. Manchester Airport is still expanding, and millions are still being invested in major road developments that will increase car journeys, such as Great Ancoats Street in Manchester.”

Perhaps a salutary lesson for GMP can be found in comparing the recent Extinction Rebellion protests in Leeds and London. The protests in London started peacefully enough, as protesters occupied Marble Arch, Parliament Square, Oxford Circus and Waterloo Bridge. However, as travel began to suffer, the feeling was that they began to lose popular support.

The protest became more heated and in total over a thousand arrests were made, including three activists who had glued themselves to a train.

Sajid Javid said the climate activists had "no right to cause misery" and the Met Police "must take a firm stance".

2019 08 29 Leeds Bbc
Protestors in Leeds BBC

Meanwhile, a few months later in Leeds, Briggate (the city’s main high street) and Neville Street, an important route into the City Centre from the South Bank were blocked by protestors for five days. The action resulted in no arrests and activists cleaned up after themselves throughout. West Yorkshire Police said that their priority was to manage the protest “peacefully” and it seemed that their cooperative approach succeeded, with the force stating: "Through police engagement with the protest group, West Yorkshire Police were able to minimise the impact and disruption to local communities and businesses." According to the Yorkshire Evening Post policing the event cost £200,000.

It seems that GMP have also been preparing thoroughly, visiting businesses along Deansgate with advice, making statements and notifiying residents around Castlefield. 

So is Manchester following Leeds's example? Despite GMP’s claim that they wish to facilitate the protest, the Network for Police Monitoring say they “have been given strong indications that Greater Manchester Police is actively preparing for mass arrests.”

In a statement on social media, Superintendent Chris Hill said: “you have the right to protest lawfully but any illegal activity will be dealt with accordingly.”

It was claimed by the BBC that the group was ‘trying to get as many people arrested as possible’ but the website FAQ states that “no one will be under pressure to take 'arrestable' action.”

Manchester seems to be studiously avoiding the trend for cities to declare car-free days despite studies showing that further pedestrianisation would be a boon for business in Manchester.

Leeds City Council, for example, have 11 car-free days planned beginning from the 22 December. Paris has been doing car-free days for four years now and they are increasingly popular, with free events and a holiday atmosphere. 

A carless Deansgate will be an advertisement for how the city might be (Deansgate is currently named as the city’s worst street for pedestrians).Activists are planning to green the street with flowers and trees, while family-friendly events and creative workshops will attract curious pedestrians.

2019 08 29 Over Under
Over Under will still be serving throughout the protest

So maybe that’s why the businesses along Deansgate seem remarkably sanguine about the upcoming disruption. When I pop into Deansgate favourite Katsouris for breakfast, owner Richard has time to chat with me about the protests and I couldn’t hope to find a more relaxed interviewee. He thinks that the protest might not last as long as four days (especially if Manchester unleashes some of its spirit-dampening rain) but is chilled if they do. He has been assured that the intentions of the protesters are good: “They are non-violent so we are quite happy with it,” he says. There is also a good chance that the protestors and the protest-curious will need feeding and if so they could do worse than getting brekkie at the long-established independent deli.

Head chef Jake at Over Under takes a more cautious approach. He told me: “It could go two ways. We are kind of torn between whether it is going to be positive or negative. We’ve had the police come in, which was a bit surprising but at the same a good resource to let us know that they are not violent and are just here to say their piece. It could be great for business because shutting the road means there will be lots of people or it could hinder business if they are against what we are doing here, even though we are pretty ethical. We are not concerned but we are aware of it.” A solid pragmatist, Jake has already taken his deliveries for the weekend so can be relied upon for a decent coffee throughout the protest.

2019 08 29 Climate Xr Books
Books on display at Waterstones

Finally I head into the Deansgate institution that is the big Waterstones. Whether by coincidence or canny marketing, there is already a display of books on environmental topics near the doorway, with climate emergency heroine Greta Thunberg in pole position. Head buyer Jim Lee agrees with the assessment that though they will see more footfall, this might not necessarily translate into more business but again is relaxed about the protests. Jim points out that the circumstances will be similar to Pride in that they can expect at least a ten per cent increase in people visiting the area but the effect that will have on business is unpredictable, however this is part and parcel of operating along one of the main thoroughfares in the city. All of the businesses spoken to noted that climate change was an important topic that needed to be raised and seemed to be sympathetic to the protestors' aims.

Spending the morning having a wander down Deansgate is a reminder that this is actually a great street that used to be the heart of Manchester. When it was closed for gas renovations ten years ago trade increased and it became a much more pleasant place to be – perhaps it will be again this weekend.

Extinction Rebellion - what's happening?

"XR groups from around the North will come together in Manchester for a peaceful protest in the city centre between Friday 30 August and Monday 2 September 2019.

All of the events will be open to the general public, and will also include talks and training from Extinction Rebellion and external experts, including climate scientist Dr Julia Steinberger - one of the authors of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2018 report, which warned that there are only 12 years left to limit global warming to 1.5c to avoid climate change emergency.

There will be dedicated zones within the area, including Rebel Camp - an oasis of creativity, which will include art installations created specifically for the event, a garden, t-shirt printing, activities for families and kids, food and camping."

For updates on events and travel disruptions follow @GMPolice @GMPcitycentre and @OfficalTGFM on twitter