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The Madness of CityCo

The Mule | 09.08.2009 16:32 | Free Spaces

In the last issue of the MULE we looked at several powerful institutions that run Manchester. Below, Tim Hunt talks to Morag Rose about one of those featured, CityCo, and sees how playing in the streets has become a subversive act.

CityCo is the public-private partnership that manages Manchester City Centre, trying to “create the trading conditions for business to prosper”. Some have argued that to do this they use their considerable financial and political muscle to push smaller non-commercial organisations out of the city centre.

One organisation that has felt the shoulder of power leaning gently against them is the Loiterers Resistance Movement (LRM). Last year they organised the ‘Get Lost’ festival, a month of events that included walks, talks and performances aimed at exploring Manchester.

CityCo, however, weren’t keen on the idea. They claimed that this small group of urban explorers were a health and safety risk and needed to pay £2.5 million for insurance to be allowed on the streets. Morag Rose explains, “We were told it could be dangerous, encouraging people to look up at buildings or down at maps. They actually asked “what if people walked into a lamp post?” We suggested putting bubble wrap on them but they said that this would be criminal damage and actually threatened us with arrest if we did it.”

CityCo and the Council said they could not endorse, support, publicise or encourage the event unless LRM had insurance but as Morag points out “we had not asked for anything from them anyway!” Later they conceded they could not stop the events as they were not doing anything wrong, so the festival went ahead.

But the absurdity of CityCo’s policing of the city centre had only just begun. Morag continues, “they expressed concern that we may encourage homeless people into the city, told artists they needed a license to ask questions and warned of the sinister implications of our public critique of CCTV.”

One event was held in Piccadilly Gardens and involved watching and asking people how they used it. Those asking questions were confronted by CityCo wardens who demanded to know if they had a license to do so, and received vague threats about what would happen if the wardens’ boss saw them.

Jordan MacKenzie’s project about the cultural significance of queues was moved on after just 35 minutes. Manchester is the only place in the country where this has happened. Another event, Pigeon Streets, came under fire as CityCo claimed it could “encourage people to like pigeons.” According to CityCo “they are vermin and not to be viewed as anything else”.

Morag explains that “we also had a problem with flyering. Without a permit it is an offence in the city centre, this is purportedly due to littering problems. The irony is that Metro and MEN, which make up a lot of litter, can of course afford a permit. I asked for clarification and was told technically handing a piece of paper to someone who asked what we were doing could make us liable for a fine! To us this just seemed another way of wardens making money out of people; when we challenged them they never wanted to go to court and dropped the talk of fines.”

In the end all the festival events went ahead except one. The Treacle Theatre Company wanted to do a spot of urban camping as an art installation. Pitching a tent anywhere on public land in the city centre, however, is strictly forbidden. The reason, according to CityCo? “it may encourage homeless people into the city.” I wonder, does this mean if we could get all the camping shops in town to stop selling tents, we could eradicate homelessness?

The LRM is a Manchester based collective of individuals, academics and campaigners interested in psychogeography, exploring the city and public space.

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