Jonathan Schofield interviews a 'little piranha' who doesn't like the state of the city
CHAPTER ONE: IMBY not NIMBY
"ADAM," I say towards the end of the interview, "I love the city and write and comment about it. I do so from conviction but I need to make a living so I do it for money too. What motivates you to spend so much time and energy on worrying about the city?"
I was beaten up and hospitalised, and I did get a sense of anger. I learnt not to respect authority or trust it
"Well, it's not money. The more money I have the bigger drug problem I'd have," says Adam Prince before howling with laughter and adding, "God, don't put that in, oh go on then. Help, I just can’t stop my mouth sometimes."
It's these unguarded, unrehearsed moments that make you warm to this strange and complex campaigner.
Anybody who follows city centre development knows of Adam Prince. The shaven headed, stocky, black t-shirt wearing captain of campaigns has been taking a stand against what he sees as the careless development of Manchester city centre for several years. (His t-shirt during our interview sports a slightly alarming if perhaps apt bald eagle staring me in the eyes.)
Prince was a busy bee behind Friends of London Road Fire Station and now he’s the leader of the energetic social media machine that is Manchester Shield. But as with the city’s skyline so with Manchester Shield: Prince and his co-campaigners have taken things higher and further.
There is now an annual Manchester Shield awards and informal think-tanks producing material such as the Mayfield Imaginarium, which has been dreaming dreams for the huge redevelopment area between Piccadilly Station and the south-eastern sweep of the Mancunian Way.
“I think many people see me as someone who just hates new developments,” says Prince. “But that’s not true. I say I’m not a NIMBY, I’m an IMBY.”
He can see I look confused.
“Well, a NIMBY means ‘not in my backyard’,” says Prince. “An IMBY, I say, means ‘improve my backyard’. That’s why we are posting so many ‘inspirations’ at the moment. It’ll take ten years to develop Mayfield, so let’s make it exciting, bring in art and fun. I got 411 likes on Facebook on Shield with a picture from Amsterdam and a few coloured paving stones. People want this type of colour in their lives.
"But we give lots of developments praise. Capital & Centric are making the right sounds, and they have involved us from the start with schemes such as Kampus (the large development adjacent to the Village).”
NIMBY or IMBY, Prince is not everybody’s cup of tea, rather their mug of arsenic. Mention his name to many councillors and developers in Manchester and they’re on their phones in double-quick time attempting to raise a lynch mob. Event organisers have been told by site owners to not involve Adam Prince in their plans otherwise they’ll pull the event.
You can understand why officialdom in particular dislikes him. His emails are often pages long and mingle legitimate complaint and enquiry with not very veiled insult. Always well-meaning they can be a masterclass of provocation and far more likely to antagonise developers and planners then bring them to the meeting room.
Prince freely admits to being a controversialist and, prompted, reaches into his past for reasons.
“I grew up as a young gay person in Colchester. I was beaten up and hospitalised, and I did get a sense of anger. I learnt not to respect authority or trust it. Then twenty years ago I came to Manchester and it was so different. When you come from a small town like Colchester, especially to a big city, it’s a huge change especially within the gay scene where you feel you can now be yourself at last.”
Unfortunately, after that first time it didn’t work out as planned. Maybe he shouldn’t have left Manchester.
“Then, I travelled,” Prince continues. “I got into a lot of problems with drugs in Canada and America, it was a bad time, reckless, lost. So I came back to the UK and London, but I didn’t feel comfortable there either. I preferred Manchester and its different scale and friendliness. So I came back again to study. This time I started looking around and began to think the city has vast potential that wasn’t being exploited.
“Also, I was living next to London Road Fire Station, this beautiful building which was deserted. It was like living next to Boo Radley’s house in To Kill A Mocking Bird, full of mystery. I suppose, as usual with me, I became obsessed. Initially I was very supportive of the council, then I discovered all the mistakes and problems and thought what was needed was more public engagement. That was the start of this and the reputation I have now.
“I surprised myself, after all I was a total nobody, in managing to get a load of people into a room for a big discussion about the Fire Station. That was good and also the actions we as Friends of London Road took during the debate over its future. We asked so many people about London Road Fire Station and they were so pleased about having their opinions valued, especially given all the personal stories that had taken place within that building.”
Eventually London Road Fire Station was rescued from the hands of the ridiculous Britannia Hotels by Allied London. It now has a bright future and one that goes beyond simply a single large hotel to being a generous building with a multi-functional role. Whether strictly the case or not, Prince feels this is down to campaigns by the Friends, or was at least something that was influenced by them.
“During that process I learnt there was an aspiration gap between what people can imagine and the stuffy world of politics and development,” says Prince.
CHAPTER TWO: TWEETING POLITICIANS AND TAKING THINGS BROADER
Oddly it’s the politicians and local government he’s most angry with, rather than developers producing dull schemes. This is one of those areas in which Prince seems confused, clumping together politicians, the chief executive’s office and the statutory role of planning with all its limitations and checks and balances.
“There’s an indolence in that Town Hall,” he says with contempt, pointing through the Midland Hotel window in the direction of Alfred Waterhouse’s masterpiece. “It’s like a bloated anomaly. I think people are so comfortable there, lazy.”
He leans forward and says with real force. “I was in a meeting recently and the Chief Executive’s office tweeted how, ‘Manchester does it differently’. Well, how does it do it differently, it just spouts cliché and repetition. Manchester has the same model of development as everybody, one without civic engagement. I said this on a tweet and, do you know what, they blocked me.”
“We have these so-called consultations, that I call fauxsultations," he continues. "You know, over the Mayfield development, 550 people responded to Manchester Shield, 429 in a survey. We were told those comparisons were ‘obnoxious’. Why are they obnoxious when none of us are getting paid for what we do and we just aspire for the best for the city. More importantly why do politicians say it’s the people’s fault if they don’t respond to consultations if when we do it’s seen as inconvenient.”
Prince gets that fierce look in his eyes again and rolls up several arguments in one before chucking in another dig at councillors: “I want a change in their approach. I think part of the problem might be that so many groups who think like us are part-funded by the council and the council can turn the screw on them if they complain. Have you seen how many tweets Manchester councillors are sending about Trump when they should be fighting local issues?”
I say I haven’t and that this is a bit rich given his use of social media and his teasing, often aggressive visuals, some borrowed, some created, such as the picture of Pinocchio with a lying nose shaped like one of the controversial St Michael's Towers. These hardly seem part of a reasoned discourse, although they can be very funny.
I also point out that many councillors are hard-working and care deeply about their wards. Still, he makes a strong point about consultations about developments, despite the confusion over the various arms of local governance. The waste of time reacting to anything in a consultation is becoming more and more glaringly obvious and thus, destructive of public engagement.
Prince wants to take Manchester Shield beyond just development chatter.
“I am optimistic about the future,” says Prince. “I think when the people in so-called authority say never it makes other people more determined for change. We’re also in a different world with social media, people can respond quicker. There are lots of little groups at present in the city and at Manchester Shield we’d like to join people up, maybe the Green Party will support us, perhaps the Greater Manchester Housing Association will support us. There are a lot of shared objectives and a lot of anger. We want to make a city that works from the ground up and targets education, health, employment to give more people opportunities.”
The instant knee-jerk reaction of social media carries dubious virtue at best most might think, certainly I do, but Prince feels we’re on the verge of change. He doesn’t know how or when but he feels there's a change in the air. He mentions how Manchester Shield has talked to Andy Burnham who looks set to be Greater Manchester’s first elected mayor in May. “He’s looking at different models of development for the future city,”Prince says. (Maybe check out Confidential’s State of the City article here.)
CHAPTER THREE: MANCHESTER SHIELD, HYNOTHERAPY AND THE CAMPAIGNER FORMALLY KNOWN AS PRINCE
I ask who exactly is Manchester Shield, is it Prince’s one man band? Prince mentions another seasoned campaigner, Loz Kaye, and another individual called Yigal. Three named individuals doesn’t seem like a major force, but like a very loud clique. “But Shield has 4,000 social media followers,” says Prince, “and we don’t want to create another committee. We feel we’re a part of a bigger public engagement movement. We also feel we’ve influenced development design already, not just been a voice in the wilderness.”
He lists some of the campaigns he and Shield have been involved with including the Fire Station, The Gaskell Campus, , >span class="s2">St Michael's, Mayfield, Pomona and North Campus to preserve the former UMIST area of the city around Granby Row for which a Freedom of Information request has been delivered to the city.
Prince feels a change that can be logged to Shield influence are the Neville towers in St Michael’s which have gone from black to bronze in the proposal. A colour change Shield thinks is laughable given the principal objection was to the scale, height and position of the towers close to the Town Hall. The scale and location remain while the height has grown and it's dubious whther the colour change is down to Shield either. Meanwhile the fact the deadline for consultation on the North Campus Strategic Regeneration Framework has been extended is seen as a success.
Given his lack of concern over money and the fact he does all this for nothing, I ask how Prince makes a living.
“You wouldn’t believe what I do,” he says. “I’m a hypnotherapist, a psychotherapist and I do life coaching. But I don’t work full-time, I spend a lot of my day walking my dogs.”
And thinking hard about the city. And its governance. And what next he can tweet.
He pauses before continuing with: “I think I’m a little voice, a little piranha in a big pond, there need to be people with teeth even if they’re just a small fish taking little bites. If we can help people get off their arse and do something then that is a massive achievement.”
Piranhas, of course, are lethal in shoals, not individually. Adam Prince in his long emails and angry blasts can annoy people. He doesn't play the game, dress the right way, he ignores the formalities, but he’s good company when not angry. He calls himself 'naïve but passionate', and he’s that, as well as driven, obsessed and occasionally daft.
"Isn't the name Manchester Shield, ill-advised, a bit action-hero comic, a bit Marvell?" I say.
"It might be ill-advised," he says and then adds, "I'm a bit ill-advised I suppose. In the head." Later he sends me the reason for the Shield name, an acronym, meaning, 'Scrutiny Honour Inspiration Empowerment Lobbying Dialogue.'
Apparently there's a campaigner in Leeds who wants to create a Leeds Shield.
Wow, a franchise.
Prince is intriguing because he also seems symptomatic of a mood change in the West. That general feeling of dislocation from national and local government, partly driven by a tornado of social media. It all seems to indicate how deference to authority is evaporating, while at the same time self-expression, regardless of how reasonable or downright crazy, is on the rise. It'll be interesting to see within the narrow context of planning and development whether corporations, planners and politicians are prepared to listen or turn their backs and hope the cacophony quietens.
If so they'll be waiting a very long time, until the death of the internet. Another Prince once wrote a song called Sign of the Times, Adam Prince in Manchester, with his anger and frustration, is a sign for ours.