Quay to the city
A staunch Blairite and supporter of the Iraq War, Hazel Blears MP is forthright and enthusiastic about the ongoing regeneration of Salford. David Quinn reports
Salford's Working Class Movement Library prides itself on ignoring the "conventional history" of "kings, queens, generals and political leaders". As such, the red-brick building at 51 The Crescent might not necessarily be the kind of place you would expect to find a fervently Blairite cabinet minister.
But Salford MP Hazel Blears, the Blairite in question, has her constituency office there. In the next room, posters, badges and mugs dating from the 1980s miners' strikes, with slogans such as "Defend Union Rights Picket!" and "Coal Not Dole", are abundant. Perhaps the fact that this spiky, Old Labour-infused trade union paraphernalia is locked away in a glass case - an antique collection of interesting but irrelevant curiosities - is significant.
It certainly presents a contrast with Blears' unflinching and unapologetic New Labour persona, which is seen and heard so often on TV and radio. A staunch defender of the war in Iraq and the government's controversial anti-terror legislation, she can accurately be described as an arch-loyalist of the government.
As she explains to EG, Blears is keen to put local communities at the heart of regeneration efforts especially regarding the vast changes taking place in her own constituency.
Blears is minister without portfolio, a role previously held by such heavyweights as Peter Mandelson, Charles Clarke and John Reid. In person, she is both relentlessly upbeat and also, on occasion, disarmingly forthright. Her enthusiasm for the ongoing regeneration of Salford is obvious, but it is clear that not every aspect of the process gets her seal of approval.
"Regeneration is always about a lot more than bricks and mortar," says Blears. "If you look at the Ladywell flats in Salford, they were redeveloped four times, but after each time they went back to being a horrible place to live. Physical regeneration can be important, but you need to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour, otherwise you are wasting your money."
With a background at the Home Office that included community safety, policing and anti-social behaviour briefs, Blears' standpoint is understandable. She is happy to acknowledge the "impact on people's confidence" when their neighbourhoods are transformed by physical regeneration. But she pauses a little awkwardly when asked about the benefits to the community of Salford Quays, with its modern office blocks, half-million pound luxury apartments and, latterly, the Lowry arts centre.
"It's been hugely important for our image outside Salford. It's helped to shift perceptions enormously," she begins, before opting for a change of tack. "I was concerned that the Lowry would really just be for middle-class people from Cheshire but that's not the case. People in Salford are quite proud of the Lowry, and the Triathlon World Cup event has brought in thousands of people. So it's perhaps not brought about the social division people may have been concerned about."
One might, then, describe development at the Quays as having a positive "trickle-down" effect on local communities. But Blears frowns at this wording and, as if reminded of the political legacy that led to the slogan-filled relics in the next room, says she "hates that phrase" because "it's very Thatcherite". Instead, she says she prefers to look at the development of Salford Quays, and physical regeneration in general, as a "virtuous circle".
"Developers are more likely to want to come into other parts of Salford because of the success of Salford Quays," she explains.
The Quays is earmarked for a major relocation by the BBC in 2010, as part of Peel Holdings' MediaCity:UK scheme, which is being championed by local urban regeneration company Central Salford. But the BBC is saying the move may not happen unless it can get a 1.8% rise above inflation in the licence fee settlement something to which the Department of Culture, Media & Sport has yet to agree.
Blears is, of course, keen to see the move happen, and says she is "lobbying intensively" on the issue. Her front-line government role gives her an inside track on the negotiations over the licence fee, although she stresses that she will make no formal intervention, other than as a local MP.
She makes it clear she is unimpressed with the BBC's prevarication over the licence fee settlement and its attempts to use Salford as a bargaining chip in the negotiations. "It is entirely inappropriate," she says. "The BBC said they would come here. The proposal we put to them is a fantastic opportunity for them and for us. They should fulfil the commitment they have made. It's essential that
the scheme as envisaged happens in full. MediaCity is not just about the BBC coming here, that's just one part. The scheme as a whole needs to have that integrity. It's not sensible to pare it back."
The MP is full of praise for the Central Salford URC, which, as well as wooing the BBC to Salford, has begun a series of proposals for the regeneration of Salford's historic city core (see p182). The regeneration of the A6 Chapel Street, to reinforce links with central Manchester, is central to the URC's proposals, and Blears approves.
"The A6 corridor is key," she says. "It's important we get the best high-quality development along Chapel Street. But we need to progress quickly because the contrast between the A6 and Manchester city centre is dramatic."
Blears does not believe it is necessary for Salford to ape the offer of central Manchester. She notes that when she was growing up in Salford, a trip "into town" meant Manchester, rather than Salford.
"The URC's approach, of 'making Salford beautiful' is the right way to go," says Blears. "We are different,
we have lots of green space and yet we are close to a major metropolitan centre. You play to your strengths, rather than becoming a mirror image of a bustling city centre."
She compares the relationship between Manchester and Salford with that between Minneapolis and St Paul in the US, joking that it sounds "romantic".
The interview concludes with what Blears happily labels a "warning shot" to property developers about the role of local communities in regeneration. She confesses that EG is not her "usual reading material" but is clearly keen to ram home her agenda to those for whom it is.
"Throughout all the regeneration in Salford, the thing that's made it successful and sustainable is the involvement of local people. You can't regenerate just by building great buildings," she says. "If you invest in local people you get better results and transformational, long-term change."