Andrea Sandor speaks to three women taking the council to court to block car park plans next to a primary school

“Someone needs to make it their mission in life to make that site a park,” Gemma Cameron thought to herself one day in July 2019 as she walked past the 10.5-acre former retail park in Ancoats. 

That person, it turned out, would be her.

I was wearing a mask before the pandemic on my bike because you could taste the pollution

Gemma wasn’t alone. There was a lot of anger about the council's plans to use the former retail park as a temporary 440-space charging car park before developing the site into offices. 

It’s next to the city centre’s only primary school and the car park plans were announced on the same day as the council declared a 'climate emergency'. For residents who believe the future of city living is green, it was a kick in the teeth.

Gemma took part in a protest against the car park plans and felt people’s energies could be focused further. She went home, threw together a website and launched a petition. Over the following months, the petition gained over 11,000 signatures and a coalition of residents and grassroots groups coalesced around Gemma’s campaign: Trees Not Cars.

2021 01 06 Trafford Mums Fighting Council Gemma Julia Claire
Gemma Camerona, Julia Kovliova, and Claire McDonald are at the heart of Trees Not Cars. Over 12.5k people have signed their petition for the site to be a community green space

Despite the opposition to the car park plans - including from local councillors - the council’s planning committee approved the temporary car park in late October 2019. Gemma and Trees Not Cars filed for a judicial review to try to block the car park. After several delays, the hearing will take place this Friday.

I recently sat down (via Zoom) with Gemma, Julia Kovaliova, and Claire McDonald - two other women at the heart of the campaign. I was interested in what motivated them to pursue the legal challenge and how they’re feeling about the upcoming hearing.

All three women are in their thirties and moved to Manchester in the past 10-15 years. They’ve watched the city transform around them as it’s undergone rapid development. But their eager sense of anticipation gave way over the years to disillusionment and even dismay.

2021 01 06 Trafford Mums Fighting Council Gemma
Gemma Cameron, founder of Trees Not Cars, became a first-time mum this past September. She has been hospitalised with asthma since moving to Manchester in 2011

Gemma, an Engineering Manager originally from Preston, moved to Manchester from Nottingham for work in 2011. With lots of family in the city, she soon felt at home. However, she missed the green spaces she was used to in other cities and found it harder and less pleasant to get around on foot. Since moving to Manchester her asthma also got worse - due to the dirty air she says - and she had to be hospitalised for the first time.

But the 'final straw' that led her to form Trees Not Cars was Angel Meadows Park, near where she used to live. 

“They’re strangling the park,” she says, referring to the cluster of skyscrapers being built around the perimeter of the city’s only park. The Meadowside development is also impacting existing residential flats by blocking their light. Gemma started getting more involved with learning about the opaque and confusing nature of the planning process. “We found out the building has a right to light, not residents.” 

2021 01 06 Trafford Mums Fighting Council Julia
Julia Kovaliova’s is a mother of three. Her oldest son has asthma and attends New Islington Free School, next to the former retail park

Julia moved to Manchester from Lithuania with her husband 15 years ago, “We moved here for a better life.” She says she’s enjoyed living in the city centre and watching areas like Ancoats develop with independent cafes and the marina. She and her husband prefer city living to life in the suburbs and Ancoats has been an ideal home for them, close to work, restaurants, and galleries.

But now she feels Ancoats is being overdeveloped. As a mother with two small sons and a baby daughter, she’s acutely aware of the lack of green space and playgrounds for families. She joined Trees Not Cars shortly after it formed because her son who attends New Islington Free School has asthma. Although she had no experience of activism and had never been part of a campaign before, she felt she had to act.

2021 01 06 Trafford Mums Fight Council Claire
Claire McDonald is the social media and fundraising wizz behind Trees Not Cars. She started wearing an air pollution mask when riding her bike because she could “taste the pollution”

Claire has also watched the city transform in the past 10 years since she moved to Manchester from North Yorkshire. She moved for a job as part of the opening team at the Hilton at Beetham Tower. Since then she’s moved four times in the city centre and says development followed her wherever she went, meaning she could never escape construction and the disturbance it creates. 

Now she lives in Beswick, further away from construction but still within walking distance of the city centre. However, it’s not a nice walk or cycle ride. “I was wearing a mask before the pandemic on my bike because you could taste the pollution,” she says. 

Her mask regularly gets dirty, clearly illustrating the problem.

Of the three women, Claire doesn't have children and is self-employed with a flexible work schedule, so she currently has more time to commit to the day-to-day running of the campaign. She runs the social media and is the wiz behind much of the fundraising.

2021 01 06 Trafford Mums Fighting Council Xr Die In At Crp
Extinction Rebellion staged a ‘die in’ at Central Retail Park to support Trees Not Cars in September 2019

A lovely aspect of this whole story is that Claire and Gemma are good friends and Claire stepped up her involvement when she realised Gemma's concerns about having the funds needed to cover the legal fees. After all, the name on the court documents is Gemma’s, so it’s ultimately down to her to shore up the money.

“I couldn’t have Gemma stressing about money, that’s not on,” Claire says. With Gemma and Julia both expecting babies this past September, Claire - whose background is in recruitment and fundraising for the NGO sector - took the reins. 

A key argument for developing Central Retail Park into offices is that job creation for local people needs to be prioritised. This argument was made at last month’s planning committee, where plans to build offices on New Islington Green in Ancoats was approved despite 94% of consultation responses opposing the development. 

But Claire doesn’t buy this argument about local jobs. She cites the example of Media City, which promised to create thousands of local jobs. In the end, only 24 jobs went to people from Salford despite over 3,000 applications, while two-thirds went to Londoners. 

“They’re good at telling you how many jobs they’re going to create beforehand, but don’t tell you how many actually went to locals unless a journalist looks into it.” 

2021 01 06 Trafford Mums Umbrellas
Trees Not Cars recently helped organise a protest against developing New Islington Green into offices. The plans were approved despite 94% consultation respondents opposing the plans and a petition with over 5,000 signatures

Julia, a Finance Manager, is sensitive to the economic argument around jobs, but says local authorities have an obligation to provide clean air and green spaces for the people who already live here. With plenty of undeveloped brownfield sites in the city, she’s baffled why the council has chosen to build on New Islington Green. “Why are they taking something away from the people and creating bad PR for themselves?”

In the case of Central Retail Park, the council purchased the site for £37 million in 2017 with the intention to develop it into offices with Manchester Life, the council’s joint venture with the Abu Dhabi United Group. The plans to use it as a temporary car park were to help cover the purchase price, which partially explains why the council is so determined to win the case. The Trees Not Cars campaigners tell me the council has hired one of the country’s top QC’s, who is London-based, to take on the community group.

But far from nervous, Gemma, Julia and Claire are in high spirits when we speak. Having fundraised over £2,000 in the past two days alone to help cover the legal fees, they’re hopeful they will meet their target.

The successful fundraising will help Gemma sleep sounder at night. When I ask whether she’s had any second thoughts along the way, Gemma says, “I bloody wobbled! Especially when I thought I might have to pay for everything and I was newly pregnant! But I’ve been bowled over by the generosity of this community. The council need to listen to the people they’re supposed to represent.”

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What you can do

Sign the petition

Donate to Trees Not Cars’ crowfunder via gofundme or PayPal

Follow Trees Not Cars on Twitter and Facebook

Read next: Is Manchester doing enough to fight its air pollution crisis?

Read again: Central Retail Park has become a battleground for Manchester’s future – Part 1