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What Can Manchester Teach the Tories About the Economy?

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It's somehow appropriate that the Conservative Party should be holding its conference in Cottonopolis at a time when the chickens of unchecked capital are coming home to roost. Could the city that was once the hub of globalisation tell us something about our future?

For a couple of decades Manchester's had a kind of renaissance, turning the legacy of industry into the symbols of consumption: warehouses morphed into swish apartments, exchanges into eateries. While some Mancunians enjoyed the pleasures of affluence, much of the real trade and inventiveness moved to the other side of the planet.

Meanwhile, outside the retail Mecca of the city centre, much of Manchester has never felt the benefits of that credit-driven and publicly funded resurgence. One Mancunian friend lamented to me the other week that people's aspirations were so low that during the summer riots they looted the pound shops.

Wealth and pride, poverty and depression have always sat cheek by jowl in Manchester. Can a Conservative party that not so long ago proclaimed its conversion to progressive principles come up with a plan for a better economy?

Andrew Tyrie, chairman of the Commons Treasury select committee, came up with one version at the weekend. It was a familiar recipe: reduce regulation, curb employment rights and cut taxation.

Initiatives such as localism, the big society and the green agenda were 'at best irrelevant', he argued. On climate change, in particular, he hinted that environmental action was a luxury we could not afford:

'The Coalition should re- examine measures, such as the carbon floor price, that are more rigorous than those undertaken by other EU countries. It should also reopen with international partners, particularly in the EU, a debate over the economic consequences of its proposed route to decarbonisation and reconsider its speed of trajectory, too.'

What he means, in simple terms, is that we shouldn't go faster than other countries in reducing carbon emissions because it may be bad for British business. This is a slow bicycle race to oblivion, sacrificing the resource base for the next generation's economy for the sake of cheaper business costs today.

A couple of months back Manchester came up with a different approach. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority's climate change strategy, published entirely without fanfare at the end of July, proposes a 48% reduction in carbon emissions. That means investing in technologies, design and ways of behaviour that both reduce the environmentally damaging effects of the city and position it for survival and success in a much more uncertain future - one in which human beings must come to terms with their consumption of resources and learn to live as if they intend to stay on this planet.

There is of course a world of difference between writing a strategy and actually doing anything. But it at least means that Manchester is starting to face in the right direction. It will be interesting to see which vision of the future the 'greenest government ever' signs up to.

You can download the Greater Manchester climate change strategy here (pdf), or read Phil Korbel or Steve Connor's blogs about it. Andrew Tyrie's paper is here (pdf).

For more on why we can't keep consuming resources at our current rate, see this talk by Chandran Nair.