Bev Craig has her own ideas
'I think Manchester's hand has shifted, and it's my job to make sure we properly play that hand'
By Joshi Herrmann
The leader of Manchester City Council has two antique chairs in the corner of her office, but that’s not where Bev Craig invites me to sit down.
They are “listed chairs” made by the same man who designed the Town Hall — very beautiful but not much use, she says, because you’re allowed to sit on them for about 30 minutes per week. So we sit on functional office chairs at a round meeting table, the same table at which I interviewed her predecessor, Sir Richard Leese, almost a year ago, on the day he announced his retirement after 25 years.
When Craig took over from Leese last December, many wondered if she would take the council in a leftwards direction, noting her past work as a union officer and her support for various social justice campaigns over the years. In the seven months since, fears in the business community seem to have been allayed, and it’s now activists on the left who are saying they want to wait and see before they weigh in on how she’s running the city.
"Anyone who has tried to line manage me has probably always found it a little bit difficult,” she says when I ask about her politics. She says she isn’t a tribal sort of person and doesn’t go in for personality politics either. "You would never have seen me with a Jeremy Corbyn t-shirt on,” she says, smartly dodging the element of my question about whether she was a member of the campaign group Momentum. “In the same way that you will never see me with a Keir Starmer t-shirt on or any other leader,” she adds.
She helped to start a group called Open Labour, on what she calls the “soft left” of the Labour movement, during Corbyn’s leadership. "I wasn't going to follow a man who didn't want to do it,” she says, referring to the fact that Corbyn had to be persuaded to put his name forward for the leadership, “but that isn't to say you can't share some of those economic views". She immediately clarifies that she “did differ significantly on some of the foreign policy stuff".
That’s all in the past, and now she’s got one of the most influential jobs in local government (she’s also Greater Manchester’s lead on the economy, business and international policy) the 37-year-old says ideological purity is a barrier to action. "I think you can draw from different traditions if you want to be a pragmatist,” she says, with the sound of heavy machinery from the Town Hall renovation reaching into her airy office in the council’s temporary digs on St Peter’s Square. “And if you want to run a city, you have to be a pragmatist. Rooted in your politics, rooted in your principles, but running things is hard."
The private sector has noticed Craig’s pragmatism, and been reassured by it. The property developer Tim Heatley spotted her sitting in a cafe at a property conference in Leeds recently, letting people come and chat with her. “It was nice to see,” Heatley told me, noting that Craig has been seen at a string of property and business events and seminars. “I sat down and said 'nice to meet you' and just grabbed 20 minutes with her, and everyone was doing that,” says the co-founder of Capital and Centric.
Frank McKenna, whose lobbying group Downtown in Business has a long list of clients in Manchester, admits “there was a degree of nervousness” about Craig’s accession to the throne, but he’s been similarly pleased with what he’s seen. “She hasn't come in with a baseball bat and said ‘all businesses are evil, we don't want anyone to make a profit’. The way in which she's engaged has been really impressive,” he told The Mill. “She's proved that she does understand and appreciate the importance of the relationships with business.”
When she first found political activism as a teenager, Craig might have been surprised by the idea that she would one day be attracting praise from the likes of Heatley and McKenna. She says her politics were formed growing up on a working class estate eight miles outside Belfast, "with people who have been consistently let down by services because they have been under-valued and they have been underestimated". She thinks she has been lucky to get from that start in life to where she is today and says her driving force is building a society where that kind of progression doesn’t rely on luck.
"I know lots of people, back on the estate which I grew up on, that are dead bright, that work so hard every day, and that don't get the same chances in life,” she says. “So my politics are always rooted in that." Craig’s family lived in a staunch Loyalist, protestant community, and they weren’t party political. She came out as gay as a teenager — “a bit of a rough time”, she says — and found her way into politics with a group of young people in Belfast who were doing all sorts of social justice campaigns.
She came to this city in 2003 to study Class, Politics and Modern History at the University of Manchester. "At uni, I probably spent more time trying to save the world and drinking than reading Marx,” she says of that time. Craig then did a postgraduate degree in Local Government Management at Warwick, and in 2012 she was back at her alma mater in Manchester, doing a master’s in Political Science and then a PhD studying “Class and Diversity” in parliament, examining “how class background intersects with other diversity strands”. From 2014 until 2017, Craig worked as an officer for the trade union Unison, having been elected as a councillor in Burnage in 2011.
She tells me that Manchester was the first place she felt comfortable and at home, and that it “gave me something powerful”. She also says that class is still fundamental to her political outlook. "There will always be a class analysis in my politics,” she says, but she doesn’t like the trend in the Labour party of talking about how "you were born in a barn, you lived in coal bunker, you had to eat coal for breakfast, life was terrible". She wants working class Mancunians to be able to aspire to become “our future innovators and millionaires,” but also to be able to live a good quality life while not aspiring to those things. She doesn’t want to give the impression that “you have to be a tech innovator or a professional, middle class person to do well".
That might sound like a politician just trying to cover all the bases, but it gets at what Craig seems to be prioritising as a leader. She talks about the importance of building decent homes and creating good jobs in communities outside the city centre, and making sure there is a wide enough range of housing so that people who have “done well” after growing up in a social home and who want to buy their house can find an affordable option without leaving the neighbourhood. This emphasis feels like a clear break from Leese. And while Craig won’t openly criticise her predecessor, she also doesn’t want to be judged by standards she hasn’t set.
"Sometimes in Manchester we've become obsessed with the city centre,” she says. “The vast majority of people in Manchester do not live in the city centre. And they deserve just as much, in terms of investment, in terms of high quality, in terms of great places to live and to be”. Manchester’s population is expected to hit 627,000 by 2025, a 31% rise since 2000, with 100,000 people choosing to live in the city centre. And in the new 10-year housing strategy Craig launched last week, there is a plan to build 36,000 new homes across the city, including at least 10,000 social and genuinely affordable ones. At least 80% of all those homes will be built on brownfield sites close to public transport, the council says.
Taken together with announcements this month about expanding Selective Licensing of landlords from seven areas to an additional eight, and a plan to sign up housing associations to a “Manchester Living Rent”, it’s clear that after six months of getting her ducks in a row, Craig is now trying to steer the council in her own direction. She says you can be pro-business and pro-growth while also realising the city is now a magnet for investment and the council can be more demanding. “I think Manchester's hand has shifted, and it's my job to make sure we properly play that hand".
It’s been noted by insiders that after recent elections to the council’s cabinet, Craig now has an executive team largely made up of her allies, with her rival for the leadership Luthfur Rahman notably less influential despite his title of deputy leader. A couple of councillors close to Rahman narrowly lost out in races for executive positions, and he no longer has responsibility for homelessness, an area of significant weakness for the council (which will be the subject of an upcoming story on The Mill).
One key figure on the cabinet is Gavin White, the executive member for housing and development, who has declared his intention to “push” developers to build or pay for more affordable housing and hold them to account when they claim they can’t, according to the Local Democracy Reporting Service. Heatley says he has noticed the council is getting more serious about allocations of affordable homes in its negotiations with developers, although he says that was already “rising up the agenda” under Leese’s leadership.
“In the past it was, we want affordable but not at the cost of poor quality public realm or poor quality architecture,” he says, characterising the position of the former administration. “So placemaking came first, after that, if you can afford affordable, great. That was the unwritten rule. And now it's like, actually affordable housing is as important as the quality of architecture and the landscaping. And we do need you to deliver it.”
Will it result in more affordable homes being built, given that developers are under no legal obligation to build 20% affordable units in a development if they can show a project won’t be “viable” with the affordable component? Heatley is doubtful. “Why they [the council] might not get as many affordable houses as they want is rampant inflation — costs are rising 15%,” he says. House prices are going up too, but mostly in the suburbs, which doesn’t help to create space in developer spreadsheets for more affordable homes in the city centre. “Until central government step up and provide the level of support necessary for affordable to work in the city centre, it will be relatively limited,” he says.
McKenna says Craig’s arrival has focused minds in the property community. “I think Richard was very demanding of the private sector as well, but when there's a fresh voice in the room, I think she offers that message in a slightly different way. Maybe people are hearing it in a different way.” The change in leadership in Manchester has taken place at a time when the pandemic has starkly highlighted housing inequalities in society, and that’s got through to developers too. “I think the mood music has changed,” McKenna told me when we spoke this week. “I think there is more of an appetite from developers to go the extra mile and see what they can deliver [on affordable housing]. But ultimately, margins still need to be in place. If they are taking the risk, they will expect there to be a particular return.”
That’s what the evil capitalists think, but what about figures on the left? A campaign group called Greater Manchester Housing Action, which has published some influential research reports about the council’s sale of land to developers, became a thorn in Leese’s side towards the end of his tenure (“They’re middle class tosspots and I hate them,” I heard Leese say at a drinks function last year). Isaac Rose, one of the group’s key organisers, consulted his fellow activists when I asked him about Craig’s record so far, and they are mostly keeping their powder dry.
It is “too early to give a clear verdict on the change or lack thereof that Craig represents vs Leese,” Rose told me. “There have been some encouraging things: she seems more willing to meet with campaign groups and critical voices, an emphasis on moving the benefits of growth from the centre to the suburbs, and a focus on social housing.” He notes Craig’s willingness to meet campaign groups like Trees not Cars and Block the Block, which he sees as a genuine change from the Leese era.
”That said, unless Craig is willing to seriously challenge the economic model of Manchester over the last twenty years, particularly with regards to housing and development, then her shift in rhetoric and approachability from the previous regime will count for little,” he adds. “This will, inevitably, require her confronting the powerful vested interests in the city's real estate industry.” He sees two ongoing planning battles — the Gamecock development in Hulme, opposed by Block the Block, and the Port Street tower, opposed by many residents groups in Ancoats — as acid tests of whether the council is changing direction “or if it’s business as usual with a different face”.
What certainly feels like business as usual is Craig’s contempt for Manchester’s Liberal Democrats and in particular their leader John Leech, a councillor for Didsbury West. In our discussion about the need to build more houses in Manchester, she makes the point that building needs to happen in wealthier areas like Didsbury and Chorlton too, areas where the left-leaning sympathies of some residents don’t always extend to enthusiasm for building new homes that might be visible from their Georgian bay windows.
“There's been a local debate in Didsbury around affordable housing, with some surprising opponents to said option,” she says, referring to the Liberal Democrats. She confirms she is referring to Leech specifically, who she claims “spent such a long time complaining that the council wasn't building any affordable housing, lo and behold suddenly comes out opposing affordable housing in his ward". The old enmities between the two parties in Manchester run deep from when the Lib Dems were a major force in the city before the coalition government demolished their support. And Craig is on a roll.
Leech “spent years” lambasting Leese over affordable housing, but "at the first chance to test his mettle, and he bottles it", she adds. When I got hold of Leech on the phone yesterday, he vehemently denied being a hypocrite and said he supports affordable housing. “If she knew what she was talking about, she would know that I'm not opposing the affordable housing element at all,” he said, referring to a proposal from the housing association Southway Housing. “What I've said is they should reduce the scale of the development down to the affordable units and scrap the rest of it.”
It’s probably only in the next two years, as Manchester tries to get back to normal after the pandemic and the council implements its new plans, that we will see what kind of change Craig will bring to the city. She didn’t ask for this interview, we requested it, and so far she has chosen quiet efficiency over showy speeches or soaring Andy Burnham-style rhetoric. For now, Manchester’s first woman leader is emphasising her policy credentials and her practicality — even if she has a pair of “listed chairs” sitting in her office.
Further reading if you liked this article:
Listen to our podcast, which tomorrow has our full interview with Bev Craig. Thursday’s episode covered the Oldham CSE report and Andy Burnham’s negotiations to bring more powers to Greater Manchester.
The man who ran Manchester — read our in-depth profile of Sir Richard Leese from last year, including interviews with George Osborne, Andy Burnham and many of Leese’s former colleagues.
Read more details about Manchester’s housing strategy, which has just been launched and will face scrutiny soon.