Introduction

The river valleys of the Irk, Medlock and Mersey include many of the city’s green spaces, connect Manchester to the wider City Region and contribute to the distinct nature of our neighbourhoods. However, the rivers and their surrounding landscape are also the product of their past usage, and need to evolve in order to claim their rightful place in the story of Manchester’s future.

In 2020 Manchester City Council commissioned Groundwork and other partners to:

  • Understand people’s experiences of Manchester’s network of rivers and streams
  • Capture the problems and the opportunities for improvement that exist along and around the Irk, Medlock and Mersey as they flow through the city
  • Create a vision for how rivers could look and function
  • Use this information to establish a plan of action that will energise improvements and maximise the potential of the river valleys for years to come

Stakeholder Engagement

Throughout 2020-21, Groundwork led the stakeholder engagement element of the project – speaking to community members on social media, in online workshops and face to face – with the intention of including as many people as possible in the conversation about the future of Manchester’s River Valleys.

Consultation activities included:

  • An on-line survey, developed by The Environment Partnership (TEP), establishing how much people value and use the rivers, what they don’t like and how they would like to use them.
  • A series of on-line workshops, delivered virtually with TEP and Mersey Rivers Trust (MRT) with interested partners, organisations and individuals capturing thoughts about the challenges and opportunities facing each river valley. We held separate workshops for each river valley to allow us to focus more clearly and understand the different cultures and experiences in each valley.
  • A series of one to one meetings following the group workshops for key stakeholders to reflect and build on on discussions at the workshops.

In addition, our social media campaign became increasingly important due to the ever changing Covid-19 restrictions. We created a project summary document to download online and a short film and animation to watch, we were able to drive interest to consistent messages and opportunities to get involved. We used the #OurRiversOurCity hashtag for partners to easily share content and delivered a series of blogs written by project partners.


Stakeholder Feedback

The following themes were raised consistently across the stakeholder engagement activities, and across all 3 river valley areas:

1. There was a real sense that participants recognised the focus on building back better because of the coronavirus pandemic. Together with their increased awareness of the value of green and blue spaces the engagement activities marked a key moment in time for harnessing focus and energy. This in turn gives a sense of urgency and desire to see change.

2. In addition to making sure that we get the best value from our ‘honey-pot’ sites, there was a strong message that small-scale projects and big, bold projects should go hand in hand and that projects should include activity on multiple levels. For example, large-scale investment pieces should include community-focussed awareness raising activities and clean up campaigns, a cycleway should include a wild buffer strip.

3. Balancing the need to invest in the Irk and Medlock without letting the Mersey slip backwards was a noted challenge. The greatest need and the greatest opportunities are felt to be in the Irk and Medlock, for example in health gains for the population. This is reinforced by the fact that North and East Manchester’s rivers are felt to be culturally lost, demonstrated by a lack of tradition of going for a walk with the dog for example.

4. There is a call for greater strategic join up between both Local Authorities and catchment based initiatives. There was wide recognition that a catchment approach is required to best tackle a range of issues that do not restrict themselves to administrative boundaries such as non-native species. There was a call for Local Authorities to work together more when accessing funding to address the shared challenges facing the river valleys. In addition, we heard a real desire for the best value to be achieved from initiatives that integrate a range of policies and planned projects which reflect the understanding that river valleys are central to the governance of the city, and have influence beyond the city. “Clayton Vale is a success story with increased activity, which encourages more people. It feels safer now and has international visitors (on the coat tails of sport city). It sometimes takes new people to appreciate the area before local people appreciate it and a local bad reputation takes a long time to shift.” There was a clear understanding of the relationship between the river valleys and other policy areas that directly affect the valleys such as health and community safety.

5. When asked what would constitute success for improvements to the river valleys, there was a strong feeling that it involved local communities being engaged in the rivers and recognising the benefits of healthy local watercourses. Active community groups were seen as key to this, with the recognition that support is needed to establish new groups, re- energise some existing groups and look at the opportunities for them to link and be supported by a more integrated approach. Covid-19 also has an impact here as some groups or members may not want to be actively involved, to meet outdoors even when restrictions allow and may having different priorities.

Other aspects supporting community engagement included:

  • An exploration of the potential role of social enterprises;
  • The opportunity we have with the Park Rangers to be proactive in encouraging activity in parks and creating a welcoming space for residents;
  • A frank discussion about the role of volunteers in river/park maintenance, keeping expectations of their contribution realistic and the need to resource support and coordination.

6. A tension appeared in many of the conversations between increasing and improving access and recreational activities and:

  • Protecting the biodiversity of the environment – improving access to the river valleys will need to be sensitively managed and accompanied by clear communications to raise awareness of the inherent tension.
  • Control measures installed to manage anti-social behaviour (eg from motor bikes) – there was a call for a clear approach to addressing access for all with many examples cited of poor or no access for people with disabilities.

These issues will need to be kept in mind when planning how to scale up public access.

7. Investment was a common theme in the conversations with some participants calling for current investments to be used more imaginatively and collaboratively, eg those for flood basin maintenance and for big schemes such as Northern Gateway and Mayfield to be used to inspire development elsewhere. There was also a strong message about making the case that upfront investment has long term benefits, including health and economic outcomes.

8. The industrial heritage of the rivers was a regular feature in discussions, both in terms of the challenges that the relationship brings and the physical and perceptions legacy, with a number of heritage projects suggested.

9. Through most of the conversations, there was a focus more on the amenity value of the river valleys rather than water quality and quantity. There is a fundamental relationship between water quality and the draw for people to use the river valleys, but it was mostly the people whose work involves them in the rivers that were more concerned to discuss the quality of the water and this should be kept in mind for an engagement strategy. However, there was broad recognition of the importance of SuDS from all perspectives.


Outcomes

Following the production of a Stakeholder Engagement Report, Manchester City Council were able to produce their Our Rivers Our City strategy. This document outlines the objectives and outcomes which will be delivered in the three river valleys over the next 10 years.

The strategy has been shaped by the conversations Groundwork and other partners had with local communities and stakeholders.


Delivered in partnership with:

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