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Hazel Blears MP: The Big Interview

Simon Binns talks Salford, Manchester, MediaCityUK, The Trafford Centre and Tony Blair with the controversial MP

Written by . Published on October 24th 2011.


Hazel Blears MP: The Big Interview

AS I SIT waiting for Hazel Blears MP in her Langworthy office, my view is of a derelict pub, about to be demolished.

The Langworthy, as it was, is a huge, imposing building. But in its current state, it acts as a stark reminder of the struggles the pub trade is facing and how its role as community hub is slowly being eroded. It also serves as a useful reality check that Salford still has a long way to go, and the city doesn’t stop at the Quays.

MediaCityUK hogs the skyline now. I look at a man fixing his car outside the pub and wonder if he’s ever been; if he even knows what it is.

Blears has an interesting relationship with the people of Salford. She is, it has to be said, safe in her seat. Despite her majority being cut from 11,000 to 5,500 at the last election, she still held on to her seat, with more than 16,000 votes.

But some were riled by her part in the 2009 expenses scandal and thought the public handing over of a cheque for the £13,000 she owed was tasteless, especially in an area where huge numbers of her constituents don’t earn that much money in a year.

The Langworthy pubThe Langworthy pub and car repair man 

Salford can’t seem to stay out of the news recently, for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s the BBC’s move to MediaCityUK or the riots at the precinct, the city attracts attention. The Spectator recently called it the new cultural heart of England.

SB: So, in the landscape of UK cities, how is Salford doing?

HB: There’s still a lot more to do. But I think Salford has come a very long way. I’ve lived here for 55 years and I’ve seen lots of changes; most of them for the better, certainly in the last 20 years. But people can have mixed feelings because the city is an emotional place and people are very attached to it.

Some of the changes in housing and education have been really important. Seven or eight years ago we had 22 per cent of kids leaving school with five GCSEs or more. Now that’s up to 76 per cent.

SB: How do you keep that going against the backdrop of fewer jobs and higher university fees? The prospects for young people are grim at the moment.

HB: You have to have really good and inspirational teachers and communicate the fact that things are tough now, but in the long term, the best option for anyone is to work hard. The way to succeed is through education. That doesn’t have to mean university but I would always encourage some form of further education. If you leave school at 16 without qualifications your options are so much smaller.

SB: If the government didn’t know where Salford Precinct was, the riots probably changed all that. How far did your heart sink when you saw the footage of what went on there?

HB: To my boots. There had been so many people who had worked so hard to change the image of the city, and it was all lost that night. People lost their morals; they lost their marbles and almost any sense of proportion.

Luckily I think it was a 48 hour…blip. But the image of the city has been hugely damaged by the idea that we are full of crime and anti-social behaviour after so much good work in recent years. The perception of the city has been very different.

What happened that day were two things. Firstly, it was copycat. They saw it in Manchester and London and thought 'we’ll have a bit of this'. If you look at the arrest figures, it was mainly older people with previous convictions, with some young people on the periphery. But it wasn’t an uprising of youth by any stretch of the imagination. It was criminality.

Part of it was an opportunity to have a go back at the police by some of the harder criminals we’d been so successful against.

SB: How did you think it was policed?

HB: I think they were in a bit of a no-win position. The police were perhaps slightly taken by surprise. I don’t think they had enough fully-trained police officer or riot gear.  They had to retreat and regroup and we shouldn’t be in that position because at that point, the bad guys get the upper hand.

I think they’ve learnt from that and in the days and weeks afterwards, there was an immensely improved police presence on the streets.

SB: Where do you stand on the idea that came out of the riots; to evict council tenants from their homes if they’d been found guilty of any involvement?

HB: I think you have to be measured. It may well be appropriate if you have people directing criminality from their council home. That is clearly a breach of their tenancy agreement. As a widespread policy I don’t think it necessarily makes sense because a lot of those people would end up in the private rented sector, very often in the poorest areas. You don’t want to give those areas even more problems.

SB: MediaCityUK is a bit of a beacon for some kids to aspire to. What impact will it have on the local economy?

HB: I think MediaCity is very important – that’s why I spent a huge part of my time in Parliament over the last ten years lobbying ministers to make a move north a key crux of the BBC’s licensing conditions. When that happened, that’s when we thought it could really become a reality for Salford.

SB: What do you make of the national press coverage of the move?

HB: I think the coverage has been outrageous, frankly. At one point the national media were suggesting people coming to Salford were going to need counselling. We’re not Siberia, or some sort of cultural desert.

SB: Is the tide turning?

HB: It always does. I think once you have a success on your hands, everyone wants to be part of that. It’s like politics. When you can’t damage it, people want to be involved with it. As MediaCityUK grows, and gains critical mass, it will become a place that is a real inspiration. The real challenge for our city is to make sure that our young people have the skills to be able to access the jobs – not the catering and cleaning jobs – but roles in production and technology.

SB: Those kids in the University of Salford building next door to the BBC have got to be the luckiest students in England haven’t they?

HB: They are, and it will certainly boost the university’s numbers but equally Salford College will benefit. They are taking space there, and there’s the Oasis Academy. A director of BBC Futures is about to become a governor there. That means kids from Ordsall will be getting work experience.

SB: Do you think older people from Salford think of MediaCityUK as something for them? Are people from Langworthy engaging with it, for example?

HB: It’s a bit like The Lowry, when that came. My big concern was that it would just be a place for posh people from Bramhall to come and watch ballet on a Saturday night. But they’d done outreach works with schools and community groups, they’ve reached more people than I thought they would and broadened perceptions.

I think people’s attitude to the Lowry is that it’s not something beyond their contemplation. They might not go there every Saturday night but my sense is that people are proud of it, and they like it. They realise it’s part of the economy of the city and I think the same will happen with MediaCityUK.

The more we make it open, have people visiting and when their kids start getting jobs here then it becomes less of a feeling that it is here for somebody else.”

SB: Was there a fear around that?

HB: I’m always conscious of it. It’s big, it’s shiny and posh. Does it relate to my life? And that’s why working with the schools is important, getting them in to do things with Cbeebies for example.

SB: But kids don’t have fear, do they? It’s adults who are irrationally scared of things. Like enormous mixed use developments.

HB: As we get older, we don’t like change, but kids just lap it up.

SB: Speaking of change, the Boundary Commission is consulting at the moment. They want to wipe Salford off the parliamentary map and give the Quays over to Manchester Central. Do they have a point?

HB: When we were fighting to bring MediaCity to Salford, Manchester really wanted it as well. Because we had a better bid and a better vision, we won.

I will fight to my last breath for that area to remain as Salford but it’s not just the Quays. Look at Salford Royal Hospital. That’s in my end of the city, where I live, and they’re not turning me into a Mancunian. Not that I have anything against Mancunians of course.

SB: Ah, balls to all that. Let’s just merge Salford and Manchester. No?

HB: We could call it Salchester. We’re not having Manford.

 

Chimney Pot ParkChimney Pot Park

SB: But in all seriousness, having two cities of such size right next to each other does present difficulties as well as opportunities doesn’t it?

 

HB: It does. I used to say to both leaders of Manchester and Salford councils that we should do more to market ourselves together. The example I always used to use – although it may be a bit far-fetched – was Minneapolis and St Paul; two very different cities but with a fairly similar appeal doing things together.

I think in recent years we’ve begun to do much more of that. Manchester and Salford both have distinct offerings but we can collaborate and work together. The whole of Greater Manchester does that. That’s why I made it the first legal city region when I was Secretary of State.

But if you have a single MP to represent the two areas, if those areas are in competition on something, which way does that MP go? Do they advocate for Manchester or Salford?

SB: Do you think the commission has missed the complexities of the city region?

HB: It’s been done from London, with a map. It makes convenient parcels of voters to reach the 75,000 needed. I’ve got 76,863, so I have enough. So what’s happened is that changes in the Cheshire area have created a domino effect and instability.

The alternative proposal is some more minor changes around Cheshire to stop this instability. There’s an easy way out for them and I hope they take it. All parties think it’s ridiculous.

I think it’s hard for the commission to fly in the face of unanimity from all the major political parties. It’s very rare we agree on anything.

SB: People don’t tend to move in our out of Salford. It’s not a hugely transient population, like its neighbour for example. Is it hard to develop a place that has such a static community?

HB: I think it has tremendous benefits because people develop a strong sense of identity that care about their neighbourhood. They’ll campaign for its well-being. It’s been doing Big Society for the last 100 years. The Woolpack pub in the precinct is being turned into a community co-operative, with a microbrewery that brews Salford Pride ale. I’m waiting to hear from government that we’ve got the £160m to improve the precinct and The Woolpack will be part of that.”

SB: We’ve talked about MediaCityUK and the Quays. Let’s go to the other end of the scale. What can be done to save a town like Eccles? It’s been slowly eroding for years.

HB: I go on Eccles Precinct a lot and you’re right. It has struggled. I know they’ve tried hard, but I think you need a different vision for local shopping these days and it’s not just about the shops. It’s about creating a place where people want to go and sit outside, spend time.

I’ve been pressing the council for a regeneration strategy for Eccles anchored around Church Street and maybe trying to refurbish some of those historic buildings to make it more appealing. We’re always limited in Britain by the weather. If it was a street in Spain it would probably be far easier to turn it around. But you have to look at the viability.

When I was Home Secretary, I passed a law that said you had to look at town centres first for any new developments before out of town.”

SB: Was that shutting the door after the horse had bolted? Bolted to the Trafford Centre?

HB: I think there are some areas where you have to look at a place and think ‘does it have a future?’ You have to bite the bullet. I don’t think Eccles is in that place yet. But I think there issues like parking – and paying for parking – when you can go and park for free at the Trafford Centre. These issues do have to be gripped.

We’re looking at getting free parking over Christmas, but we need to be more imaginative about what we put on in the town centre. We’ve got to try and be less dull. There’s some wonderful creativity in the city – MediaCity, Islington Mill – and young creative people. There are subsidised rents and terms to help people do something else with vacant shops. There’s a lot you can do.

If you are an independent business, you don’t want to paying high rates and other charges. You have to be given a chance. It is hard because people don’t have as much money to spend.

 

Salford PrecinctSalford Precinct

SB: Does Labour have to shoulder some of the blame for where we are economically?

 

HB: I think we’ve been clear in saying we didn’t regulate the banks well enough. I don’t think we can take the blame for the global economic recession…

SB: But that's not is it? China doesn’t think it’s global does it?

HB: I don’t necessarily accept that. They’re exposed to some toxic debt and they’re not growing as fast as they were. They’re concerned the Eurozone gets its act together. But obviously there are things we could have done better.  We’re not going to have spent every penny over the last 14 years in the best possible way, but when I look around Salford, I don’t see a story of failure.

SB: What do you make of the depth of the cuts?

HB: I think they are stupidly front-loaded – they could have been smoothed out over four years. I think they will live to rue the day actually, because it’s all predicated on the private sector growing fast enough to take up the slack, and that is not happening.

We’re borrowing to pay people on the dole. I remember when we came into power in 1997 the Tories were spending as much on the dole as they were on education. That still sticks with me, and if we’re not careful we’ll be in exactly the same position.

SB: How is life as an MP now, post-expenses scandal? Have you rebuilt trust with the public? You were the subject of quite a lot of anger during that particular story.

HB: I think the public in Salford showed in the last election that they voted for Labour and they voted for me – in significant numbers – and that what they value is a good local MP who stands up and speak for them.

I think there’s a general cynicism about politics – and the media – in terms of recent events and I think there’s a breakdown of trust in institutions more general in this country.

Part of that is the economic situation and they don’t look to the figures they’d looked to in the past to help them through that and I think it will take time for that to recover.

I think the age of deference towards politicians is long, long gone…and that’s by no means a bad thing. The way in which people communicate – things like social media - has had a profound on political life, as well as where people get their information. Much of it is unmediated, which can be good, bad or very dangerous.

We’ve just had a debate about whether we can tweet or use iPads in Chamber…

SB: Do you tweet?

HB: I don’t.  I don’t regard it as having a great deal to add to my existence (Laughs. A lot)

SB: Some people measure their own importance through the number of Twitter followers (looks at floor).

HB: Ha ha…it’s so narcissistic. ‘Hello, I know you from Twitter.’ No you don’t. I’ve never met you in my life (laughs). But it does make being a public figure much more complicated.

SB: One last thing. The Spectator’s nickname for you is The Iron Chipmunk. How do you feel about that as a nickname?

HB: (laughs) Ah yes…that was from the early days of Tony Blair and  Gordon Brown I think…

SB: Looking back at the Blair years, and his role now, how do you feel about him?

HB: He’s the only Labour leader that has given us three terms of government, and we forget that at our peril. He was very much in touch with ordinary hard-working families and knew what they wanted out of life and he tried his best to make sure people could get a job, a decent education and a health service that looked after them.

I defy anyone to be in power for ten years and not make a mistake, but he could make a decision. And I think he was a man of immense integrity.

..............

The interview concluded there and Blears left to visit a school and I headed the other way, through Chimney Pot Park towards the precinct and back into Manchester. The chap outside The Langworthy was still fixing his car, so I thought I’d try an experiment.

“Excuse me mate, so you know where MediaCity is?”

“Erm…no, I don’t. The precinct is that way though.”

“Shame about the pub.”

“Yeah, a real shame. But people don’t want pubs now do they? They want lattes.”

Maybe they do. But in Salford, there’s probably room for both.

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14 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Joe JohnstonOctober 24th 2011.

Anyone who could suggest that Tony Blair had ANY integrity, let alone 'immense' integrity is quite clearly deluded and Blears is definitely that.

It's the city, duffusOctober 24th 2011.

Still renting then, Joe?

2 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousOctober 24th 2011.

and, your point is?????

It's the city, duffusOctober 24th 2011.

Comparing Blears with Blair is as daft as comparing Cameron with Churchill.

They have nothing in common - you're pushing it to make a point...

The Blair years have enabled the MAJORITY of British people to

- get a pension they never deserved thru' instant property price rises

- stop living on trees

- stop heating with coal

- change their diets from chippy dinners to latte lunches.

Do not underestimate this achievement!

Marvin HerronOctober 24th 2011.

Ok... Had she forgot that her own party booed Tony Blair during their conference?

Secondly, Eccles? Two points to touch up on? During the long running tennor of a Labour led council here in Salford, does Hazel Blears not think that it is a shambles that Eccles have never had a regeneration scheme in place and blaming the weather on this? I also like the word 'maybe'?

Sticking around the area of Eccles, lets hop skip and jump over to Monton. Labour introduced car parking charges which have seen an adverse effect on the local community and its high street business's and Labour refutes any u-turn on these silly car parking charges which has seen a huge decline of profits for local business's which they themselves are fighting for a reversal on these idiotic charges.

Finally... Media City... Truth be known, we have a Conservative government to thank for this. They themsleves laid the foundations for such a prestiges scheme to be located in Salford.

Colin SwinneyOctober 24th 2011.

First chance to read the interview after a busy day but how surprising (not) that there is very little "ranting" following this interview. Is this perhaps another sign of the voters complacency perhaps in relation to our Polictical System and the people who represent us here (Hazel!)!! Have we given up because our MPs think its all down to the weather!!! For goodness sake! I have lived in Eccles now for nearly 10 years and as far as I can see they have built a new Bus/Tram terminal and given the Library/Town Hall an extention!!! How many jobs did that create? The roads and pavements are a disgrace and the litter is appauling! And with respect, it was like this during the last period of Labour being in Government!! I heard however that Sedgefield is doing well!!! What I would like to know is where exactly does the money get spent!!! Oh, and one last point, whoever is dropping the litter could you please NOT!!!

1 Response: Reply To This...
GimboidOctober 24th 2011.

Eh, steady on with them exclamation marks sonny Jim. Don't you know there's a recession on?

Brendan TierneyOctober 25th 2011.

How can you even want to Interview a Woman like Hazel Blears, she isn't trustworthy and talks the biggest load of Rubbish i have ever heard and that's bad because there are alot of Bull Sh....rs in the role of so called M.P.'s She got away with going to Prison for theft from her Constituants, if these M.P.'s did their jobs we wouldn't be in this situation, if i performed like them i'd be out of a job and as for Tony Blair, another one who has got away without a Prison Sentence, one rule for us and another for them, shocking and shame on both Hazel and Tony.

Charlie ButterworthOctober 25th 2011.

Brendan what a silly and foolish pub rant.

3 Responses: Reply To This...
Brendan TierneyOctober 25th 2011.

Entitled to my Opinion Charlie, do you think it's ok for her to carry on as if nothing happened??

It's the city, duffusOctober 25th 2011.

She will be out of a job as soon as the constituencies merge...

WoksmugglerOctober 26th 2011.

Charlie - would prefer to see you put sensible counter arguments rather than somewhat childish comment - your post seems a little, well, silly and foolish! Had you been to the pub before ranting?

The Silver ScreenOctober 25th 2011.

Can we stop using Eccles as a yardstick of deprivation please? The precinct gets bleaker by the day but this is a reflection of town centres across the country. Liverpool Street is patchy too but there are still a few little independent shops hanging on - a bike shop, a pet shop, Barry's etc. Eccles town centre is usually very busy with people and the library is beautiful. I miss the market and the old cinema that went for the Morrisons but its no better or no worse that it was 20 years ago and its taken a proper good hiding over the years from Dumplington precinct and what not.
Saying that - allowing the Tesco at West One was typical of Salford City Council's suicidal 'planning' policy and will probably kick ten shades of s**t out of poor old Eccles. Didnt hear Hazel sticking up for Eccles on that one?

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousOctober 26th 2011.

I'm interested to see how much difference a Tesco at West One would actually make to Eccles. The Morrisons is already there and I doubt there are many who cross the 'bus shelter divide' from there already.

As for our vanishing pubs, so many of them are so poorly run and badly maintained I'm not surprised they go under. The real disaster is that when they're left to rot, we lose some often unique and characterful buildings that we will never get back. Salford has a hideous history of demolishing the nicest parts of itself; what is left should be better cared for. The planning department has a lot to answer for in that respect.

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