Hundreds of climate protesters plan to occupy one of Manchester’s busiest streets for four days this weekend to expose the “huge contradictions” of a city region that has declared a climate emergency while planning to massively expand its airport.
The Extinction Rebellion group says that from 10am on Friday at least 750 people have pledged to take over part of Deansgate, a popular area for shopping and entertainment that has illegal levels of air pollution.
A “canvas city” is expected to be pitched on the street outside House of Fraser, with tents occupied around the clock until Monday evening for what organisers have billed the northern rebellion. A similar action in April across various sites in London, including Oxford Circus, resulted in more than 1,000 arrests.
All of the events will be open to the public and will include talks from experts, including the climate scientist Prof Julia Steinberger – one of the authors of the UN climate change report, which warned there are only 12 years left to limit global warming to 1.5C to avoid a climate emergency.
Organisers are also expecting an address by an Amazonian tribesman who is studying English in Manchester.
There will be dedicated zones within the occupied area, including the “rebel camp”, which will include art installations, a garden and activities for families and children.
Greater Manchester police (GMP) said its aim was to “facilitate the protest, whilst trying to minimise disruption to all those who work, live or who will be visiting Manchester over this period”. There will be an increased police presence in and around the city centre and across the transport network, a spokeswoman said.
The occupation is the latest headache for Manchester city council, which has come under increasing pressure after announcing plans to open a 440-space car park next to a primary school and spending £9.1m on a revamp of a key thoroughfare that will remove cycle lanes.
A recent report found motorists already occupied 59% of the transport infrastructure area in Manchester despite making 13% of the journeys. All of Greater Manchester’s 10 boroughs have vowed to prioritise people over cars as the region develops. They have even signed up to a plan by Chris Boardman, the region’s cycling and walking commissioner, which pledges to “ensure all upcoming public realm and infrastructure investments, alongside all related policy programmes, have walking and cycling integrated at the development stage”.
Earlier this month residents of Ancoats, a rapidly expanding neighbourhood just outside the city centre, opened a “people’s park” on a 4-hectare (10.5-acre) site formerly occupied by the Central Retail Park, which the council wants to turn into a huge interim car park despite it being next to New Islington free school.
The people’s park is the brainchild of Gemma Cameron, a local resident with asthma who has started the Trees Not Cars campaign. “They’ve declared a climate emergency but it just feels that every single decision that has been made by the council in the moment is in complete contradiction to this climate emergency,” said Cameron. “It’s cheaper to park in Manchester than it is to get public transport and it’s unsafe for people to walk or cycle and there’s no green space.”
Next door in the Northern Quarter, the residents’ forum has consulted lawyers to challenge the council over the car park, believing it would harm the human rights and health of the people who live and work in the area. A spokesperson said the forum had found a barrister willing to work pro bono on a potential judicial review should the scheme pass planning.
Residents in both neighbourhoods have already held several protests against plans to remove the bike lane from Great Ancoats Street, the five-lane road that separates the two areas.
In June, the council announced a £9.1m “green transformation” of Great Ancoats Street, which will take out the existing cycle lanes without replacing them.
At the time, the Guardian asked the council whether it had commissioned and discarded cycle-friendly designs and was told it had not. Yet a month later, a freedom of information request by Manchester Friends of the Earth discovered that Transport for Greater Manchester had modelled an option for the council that kept the bike lanes. The council’s own scrutiny committee then castigated the plans and recommended they return to public consultation, but their recommendation was ignored.
Sir Richard Leese, Manchester’s leader since 1996, said in a recent blogpost that the Central Retail Park car park development fitted in with a parking strategy “that takes account of changing behaviour, that has the right nudges to influence behaviour”.
Yet Extinction Rebellion believes Leese and his colleagues say one thing and do another. Claire Stocks, whose VW Polo will be used to occupy Deansgate, along with a boat, as she aims to go car-free herself, said: “Greater Manchester has said it needs to reduce car journeys by 1 million a day and have 50% of all journeys made by foot, bike or public transport by 2040, yet there have not been significant enough measures to make that a reality. Richard Leese has talked about car-free days but we haven’t seen any, despite them being a quick and easy win, so we are holding a few to show how to get us started.”
Greater Manchester’s 10 councils also own large stakes in Manchester airport, which wants to increase passenger numbers from more than 25 million to 45 million by 2040.
Stocks said: “We see huge contradictions – most Greater Manchester boroughs and the GM combined authority (GMCA) have now declared a climate emergency yet Manchester airport is still expanding, and millions are still being invested in major road developments that will increase car journeys, such as Great Ancoats Street in Manchester.”
Nigel Murphy, deputy leader of Manchester City Council, insisted the council was serious about tackling climate change. He said councillors had set a target of making Manchester a zero carbon city by 2038 or earlier and was working on a detailed Zero Carbon Action Plan, due to be approved in March 2020.
“Latest data, from 2018/19, shows that the Council has almost halved its carbon emissions from a 2009/10 baseline – a drop of 48.1%, exceeding the 41% by 2020 target we had set ourselves. But the declaration of a climate emergency recognises that the council and the city can and must do more,” he said.
In a statement, the GMCA said: “Greater Manchester is a city-region with a proud history of protest and we are aware that Manchester City Council, Greater Manchester Police and other agencies are engaging with the organisers to better understand their intended action whilst trying to minimise disruption to all those who work, live or who will be visiting Manchester over this period. People across our city-region will still be travelling in to Manchester city centre for work and leisure this weekend and we hope that the protestors will bear them in mind during their protest.”