Manchester's only Green councillor on Richard Leese, the climate emergency and policital point-scoring

The recent-ish local and mayoral elections were a big deal for lots of reasons. There was squabbling over clean air. Fall out over buses. There was the fact that the elections even took place at all. But perhaps the biggest upset was that the sea of red that is Manchester is now hosting a little island of green - and it's an island some think will get bigger next time around.

The island in question is Woodhouse Park in Wythenshawe. It was won by the Green Party's Rob Nunney with 1355 votes - that's 48% of votes cast - taking the seat from Councillor Brian O’Neil, who had been a councillor in the ward for the last 17 years and received 1180 votes.

It's such a shame that there's so much point-scoring and tribalism

Rob, who lives in the area and works at Wythenshawe Hospital, has been campaigning hard for the last three years. And while it is a bit of a local politics joke that when councillors are on the campaign trail the litter pickers and hi-vis vests suddenly appear, locals know that this is a man who genuinely loves a good litter pick.

While Manchester is such a Labour stronghold though, Rob is a bit of a lone voice. He has found some support in John Leech (the Lib Dem councillor and only other non-Labour representative on the council) as well as the Green representatives in Stockport, Tameside and Trafford. But he says that while some of the more junior Labour councillors have been welcoming, the Town Hall isn't for the faint-hearted.

It's been around one hundred days since Rob was elected, the traditional settling-in period for a newly elected official, so we thought it was the perfect opportunity to see how things are going for the Green councillor.

Rob Nunney At Manchester Count 2021 1
Rob at the Manchester count where he heard he had won Woodhouse

How did you feel when you found out you had been elected? 

It's a big deal for us because we haven’t had a councillor in Manchester since between 2004 and 2008. So we’re really pleased with that. But obviously, I've never been a councillor before. It was a mixture of excitement and disbelief that we'd actually done it. The reality is that the make-up of the council [out of 96 seats] is 94 Labour councillors, one Lib Dem [John Leech] and me. It was daunting to think about what my relationship would be with the rest of the council.

Politics is really cruel. There's not really any other job that I can think of where you can just say - I want this job and I'm going fight you get it. But that's what you go in for when you get elected for a term.

So, my thoughts were - how are they going to treat me? Are they going to treat me the way they've treated the Lib Dems? But I was hopeful as there's a lot of crossover between Labour policies and Green policies so there's certainly potential to work together.

Manchester Town Hall
Manchester Town Hall

When I first went to the Town Hall for induction and meeting the other new councillors, all of whom were Labour, the vast majority of them were pleasant and welcoming. A couple of them went out of their way to get to know me a bit and to meet up for coffee and so I thought, this could be really good.

But it seems that when you go higher the attitudes change. Last month we had a full council meeting. That was my first opportunity to ask any questions, and being one of only two opposition members it's really important that I do ask questions to be the real scrutiny of what the council is doing. 

It's tradition when you ask your first questions for the other councillors go easy on you. I just had a couple of questions and because it was my first time I wanted to not overwhelm myself too much. And as you might guess they were questions around the environmental crisis.  

It’s such a shame that Councillor Leese responded in a very hostile manner. He spent most of his response criticising the Manchester Green Party manifesto, saying that my question had come from nowhere, that our campaigning wasn't on green issues. No, we didn't campaign on green issues locally because people know that's what the Green Party stand for already. I've lived in Wythenshawe for a long time, and I enjoy living here but the biggest issue I have personally is litter, and that’s the same for a lot of people. So that was one of the things that I campaigned on.

170629 Sir Richard Leese
Sir Richard Leese has been 'hostile'

The general response was very hostile and I was taken off guard because I didn't know I would get that kind of response. Now, that has set the tone. I know what to expect in future, but it's a real shame. There are just two members of the council who are not Labour. What's Councillor Leese afraid of - that we're going to take over the council? Why can't he take suggestions in a more welcoming and open manner? 

You know, not one person or one party has all the answers. I think this comes from the fact that Labour has been such a massive dominant force in local politics for so long that they're not used to working cross-party - which is a shame because I think it definitely comes from higher up. Like most of the political parties, they're whipped. In the Green Party, we don't have a whip. We can stand up for what we believe in.

How do you see your role in the council?

I think my role is being the green in the room. To make sure that that the environmental issues are on the agenda. And so I will continue bringing up questions and I have a better idea of what to expect now. Although I'm a single councillor at least I can bring up these issues. They won't be forgotten about at all.

The thing about green policies is that we can bridge the divide between all the parties. We can appeal to traditional Labour voters, traditional Tory voters. When you get a Green Party councillor, you know you've got somebody who's working hard and standing up for you because if we don't do that, we're not going to get elected again. There are no safe seats with us. The default in Woodhouse Park where I'm a councillor is Labour. If I stopped working now and just sat back on my laurels, then it would go back to that default. The guarantee you get with the Green Party is we're going to work for you.

A Woodland Path Cleared Of Litter In Wythneshawe Manchester
The Black Path in Wythenshawe, recently cleared of litter by Rob and friends

You’re known for being out in the community a lot even before you became a councillor

Part of my campaign was to try and stand up for residents’ concerns even before being elected, and that's really hard when you're not a councillor because nobody takes you seriously. So obviously I'm continuing to do that and I can get results so much quicker now. I was working full time as an operating department practitioner at Wythenshawe Hospital. Now, I've managed to reduce my hours so I can focus on my councillor work. Although you can never turn it off - you have people calling you or emailing you with issues all the time. And it's really rewarding.

There's nothing like human interaction. There are about 7000 doors in Woodhouse Park. Obviously, I'm not going to be able to knock on every individual's door frequently. But we've managed to do every single door about twice a year, outside of the campaigning period. Then during the campaign, we actually knocked on every single door, at least once, and about half again twice. We have been criticised for delivering newsletters, because of the resources. We do use 100% recycled paper and non-toxic plant-based ink for our newsletters. It does take a hell of a lot of people power because it's completely run by volunteers.

Manchester Airport Transformation Programme
Residents are affected by the expansion of Manchester Airport

What are the concerns in your area?

The airport causes a lot of issues. Obviously, there are a lot of people who work at the airport. It's been like a cliff edge for many workers. A lot of them have been on furlough but also many of them actually been made redundant. There are more residents who are concerned about the issues surrounding living next to the airport because it just feels like it's constantly expanding closer and closer to residential areas. Just building car parks on Greenbelt then building massive fences to hide the car park.

The Council is invested in the airport – do you think that’s a conflict of interest?

If your sole interest is the economy and jobs, no matter what kind of jobs, then it's not a conflict of interest; but when you think about meeting your climate change targets, yes it massively is. Whenever I’ve mentioned the airport with anybody higher up in Labour, they will come back to me with ‘you're trying to take away jobs’. But there's more than one kind of job. I would really like to see some kind of retraining programme in place to try and build back up a greener economy. A green new deal where we can train people who've lost the jobs at the airport, for example, to retrofit houses - we need to be retrofitting 60,000 - or looking after green spaces.

That’s something Andy Burnham put in his manifesto, didn’t he? So it’s not like Labour object to the principle of that idea.

It's because it's coming from me, not from a Labour councillor. It's such a shame that there's so much point-scoring and tribalism. In our manifesto, we said we want to be net-zero [carbon emissions] by 2030. We don't think 2038 is ambitious enough. We're fast approaching a tipping point. Once we hit that tipping point, climate change is going to hit us with everything that it's got, and we won't be able to do anything about it. It's time to work together.

You can read the Green Party manifesto for Manchester to find out more about the party's policies.

Read now: The Big Interview: Sir Richard Leese, 25 years at the top

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