A protest camp, claims of 'ecocide' and ancient trees protected by witches' spells. Welcome to Chorlton
The battle over Ryebank Fields isn't your ordinary neighbourhood dispute about new housing
Dear Millers — for years, the residents of Chorlton have fought off plans to develop Ryebank Fields, a few acres of green space owned by Manchester Metropolitan University. Some of them have camped on the site for over a year in protest and have invited witches to cast spells to protect valued trees. But now plans to build 120 new homes on the fields have been revealed, and tensions are running high. We’ve made a few trips down there to find out what’s going on. Is this a classic case of nimbyism in an affluent area? Or are the protesters right to accuse the university of hypocrisy and greed?
As always, this late-week edition of The Mill is for paying Mill members, but regular Millers can read a few bits at the top. If you’re not a member and you want to get all of our high-quality journalism in your inbox and be part of our magnificent community, then there couldn’t be a better time to join up.
Why, you may ask? Because (…drumroll) we’ve just announced a brilliant series of members-only events in partnership with Manchester University Press. We will be hosting events in March, April and May in which our members can hear from the authors behind some of the city’s most interesting new books and also from our own team about big stories we are working on. The events will offer a chance to meet other members, ask questions about our work and watch live conversations with authors like Andy Spinoza and David Scott. We’ll release details about tickets next week.
On Tuesday, we published an in-depth interview with Keisha Thompson, the youngest-ever artistic director of Contact Theatre, about why she has paused all commissioning since taking over at the theatre and what she plans to do next. The big question we asked her: can Contact appeal to a broad audience in Manchester while doing non-conventional work? “I am tired of the rhetoric of, let's do this big dazzling show that interests the mainstream so we can prop up this weird niche stuff,” she told us. “The weird niche stuff has value and people should want to see that work as well.”
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Your Mill briefing
On Wednesday night, University of Manchester students occupied three campus buildings as part of their ongoing rent strike. They want the uni to give into the strike demands — a 30% rent cut plus a rebate — as well as the demands of the University and College Union, and also give each student £1,500 to top up their maintenance loan “in line with inflation”. The occupied buildings include the Sam Alexander building and the senior management building. Students also barricaded themselves in the office of Vice Chancellor Nancy Rothwell. Manchester Leftist Action, a Twitter account formerly dedicated to ousting Rothwell, said “action will continue indefinitely”. Occupiers told The Mill: “we reached the decision to occupy because the university is flat-out refusing to get around the negotiation table with the UCU and strikers. Halls of residence are far too expensive for the quality of the accommodation often infested with rats and mould that takes weeks to get sorted out.” Go deeper with our in-depth report on the rent strike.
More than 1,800 houses belonging to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing have damp issues, according to the association’s interim chief executive Yvonne Arrowsmith. Awaab Ishak, the two-year-old who died from mould issues in his family’s flat, lived in a flat owned by RBH. Arrowsmith, speaking to BBC Radio Manchester this morning, said the figures were likely to be even higher, that she was “ashamed” and that changes would be made.
Alarming stories continue to come out of Greater Manchester Police. A watchdog report says the force’s custody services require “urgent attention” after it found the dignity and safety of detainees was neglected. Prisoners were "sometimes left naked in their cells and not encouraged to put on replacement clothing" among other failings. Separately, an officer from GMP was arrested on suspicion of rape. The officer, operating in the city of Manchester district, was detained as part of an “immediate response to a report received that day,” said a force spokeswoman.
Will Mason Greenwood play for Manchester United again after charges against the club’s young striker were dropped a week ago? The debate is going on among the fanbase and within the club itself. “Within the dressing room of Manchester United Women, the feeling is strong,” reports The Athletic (paywall). “Some players are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of Greenwood returning to the club.” The story also quotes a female fan outside this week’s game against Leeds who says: “I just don’t want to see him training. I don’t want to see him in a (United) kit. I don’t want to see him ever coming out at Old Trafford again.”
Hyperlocal burnout: Sources in Bolton say that the Farnworth and Kearsley First Independents, the pioneers of Bolton’s hyperlocal political scene — whose success gave rise to multiple other parties representing single wards and whose presence has added a note of chaos to the borough’s politics in recent years — are only fielding a handful of candidates in May’s all-out elections. Local Labour figures have been predicting (and hoping for) the collapse of the hyperlocals for the past few years. “It always happens with these crank groups,” says one person. “Farnworth was ground zero.”
Castlefield viaduct will reopen next Saturday after closing over winter. Expect new partner gardens planted by Hulme Community Garden Centre and Sow the City, a community group with a focus on green infrastructure. There’ll be layered gardens growing blackberries, kiwis, rhubarb and hops. But as we’ve pointed out before, the project will probably only succeed in earnest if access is dramatically widened rather than being tightly ticketed via an online booking system.
In our latest podcast, Joshi and Darryl discuss the TikTok sleuths and random social media influencers turning up in Lancashire to “investigate” the disappearance of Nicola Bulley. Darryl has been in Bulley’s home village asking these “creators” what on earth they are doing and meets plenty of other bystanders who have turned up to gawp at the search for the missing mother. The podcast also takes a look at Manchester City Council’s Active Travel Strategy (covered in this week’s briefing) and the questions being asked about the backstory of Steven Bartlett, the University of Manchester dropout turned millionaire business influencer. Listen to the podcast here.
And finally, a new review in the New Yorker of the work of Manchester novelist Gwendoline Riley is well worth reading. “I don’t recall reading many novels as grotesquely honest about the original sin of being born to inadequate parents,” writes James Wood. “Both of her novels have the unguarded nudity of correspondence; they have no time for the diplomatic niceties, the aesthetic throat-clearing of most literary fiction. The two novels relate to each other like twitching limbs from the same violated torso.”
Our weekend to do list
❤️ For Valentine’s weekend, there’s a night of romance-themed cabaret, music, film and visual art in the Northern Quarter hosted by the female theatre collective So La Flair at Off the Square. Tickets are £5.
📸 The work of social documentary photographer Shirley Baker, who captured the lives of ordinary people as the built environment of Greater Manchester changed around her, is on display at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. It’s free to visit on Friday afternoons.
📚 If discussing gender, sexuality and queer theory on a weekend appeals to you, the Portico Library is hosting a book club inspired by LGBTQ+ month. It’s just £3, and you can bring any book you like.
💃 The Carlton Club in Whalley Range is hosting an evening of Afrobeats, Latin dance and world music, because what’s more fun than pretending you’re dancing somewhere hot and sunny? Tickets are £9, and it starts at 8pm.
🖼 At Saul Hay Gallery in Castlefield, there’s a new exhibition of Aboriginal art from Utopia, an intentional community in northeast Australia. The works reflect the ancient culture of Anmatyerre and Alyawarre people, brought to a Manchester audience for the first time. It's free to visit.
🎞 Moonage Daydream, an avant-garde documentary film about David Bowie, is showing at Prestwich Community Cinema at 7.30pm. It’s £5 on the door.
What on earth is going on at Ryebank Fields?
By Jack Dulhanty and Mollie Simpson
The battle to save Ryebank Fields, a small but hotly disputed green space in Chorlton, is not your usual residents’ campaign. Yes, there are pissed-off locals, but these pissed-off locals have built a makeshift house and watchtower on site, where they have camped for over a year and around which they grow their own vegetables. They have created dedicated Instagram accounts on which they share stunning nature photos of resident wildflowers and butterflies that make the area look like a strong candidate to be the country’s next national park. They have called Manchester Metropolitan University, the landowners seeking to develop the site, “ecocidal twats” and projected the words “STOP MAN MET UNI SELLING MANCHESTER’S LAST MAJOR GREEN SPACE” onto the side of the council offices. Oh, and in their efforts to save certain trees on the site, they have organised for protective spells to be cast on them by local witches.
As I said, this is not your usual residents’ campaign. The Mill has been speaking to people associated with Ryebank Fields for well over a year, but a recent development in the saga prompted us to return to the site and tell the story. Or, as much of the story as we can fit into this newsletter. There may be more to come, provided that the witches’ curse does not prevent further publication.
A few weekends ago, campaigners carrying makeshift signs and banners gathered outside Oswald Primary School in Chorlton. They waited to hear Deirdre Lewis, a member of the Save Ryebank Fields group, speak. “This is a fight for every green space,” she said. “It is our Amazon. It is our Rubicon.” The campaigners, who stood clutching their dogs and signs reading things like “shame on MCC [Manchester City Council],” and “Not going to happen”, listened closely to Lewis’s speech.
But meanwhile, inside the school, a consultation exhibition was showing plans to build 120 new “high-quality, energy-efficient homes,” in the words of the developers, “with a carefully designed housing mix of private sale and affordable residential accommodation to help tackle the housing crisis in Greater Manchester.” The Rubicon was being crossed.
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