Community spirit at threat in Manchester as ‘business is king’ with austerity measures

In light of the Budget’s hit to Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) for disabled people, are welfare cuts and the Northern Powerhouse diminishing Manchester’s inherent community spirit?

Chancellor George Osborne’s Budget boosts to the north’s travel network and devolution powers stand in stark contrast with cuts to PIPs, which are set to hit some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens.

There’s a game of smoke and mirrors at play, disguising political reinforcement of the so-called Model of Social Disability – a theory that states disability is created by the way society is organised and the barriers it creates for individuals.

In other words, society currently disables people.

As these proposed disability cuts take hold alongside further potential council cuts and big business focus, is Manchester’s renowned sense of community dwindling?

It’s something that Phil Samphire, Project Leader at the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP), believes could be the case.

“I don’t know if it’s the feeling in the country at the moment with the austerity measures,” he told MM.

“There’s a sense that if someone doesn’t conform to the so-called average or norm then you want something that they’re not really able to provide, like if you require information in another format, for example.”

Mr Samphire, who has an unseen disability, grew up in Manchester, and has witnessed great improvements over the years in the way disabled people are treated.

But he says there’s still a long way to go in accessibility and attitude, with a tangible change in Manchester’s ‘warm welcome’.

“Everyone seems to be a little less welcoming,” he said.

“It could be somebody making room for you on public transport, let’s say. I’ve been privy to stand-up rows because people feel they don’t have to move from the accessible spot.

“People will ask ‘what’s wrong with you, then?’

“20 years ago you wouldn’t have got that. But Manchester is now a big, busy city and there is an urge to encourage business.

“Business is king. It’s vying with the community spirit.”

It’s jarring to hear. Could it be that Manchester’s burst of development and positioning as ‘the capital of the north’ is destroying its friendly soul?

Of course, the city is full of carers and charity workers doing all they can each day to help those with disabilities.

But the Council’s recent development of a new strategy, devised with input from disabled people and carers from Manchester, indicates that societal barriers are an undeniable issue in the city.

The All-Age Disability Strategy (AADS) A Proper Manchester Welcome has just finished consultation stage, and is embraced by organisations like the GMCDP as a fundamental and necessary tactic.

“It aims to highlight accessibility and issues raised by disabled people and their carers, whether that be hate crime or lack of awareness,” Councillor Paul Andrews, the strategy’s co-leader and Executive Member for Health and Care, told MM.

“The council recognises that we need a wider, more holistic response so that we create a level playing field for all Mancunians to enjoy what we have on offer. 

“We aim to raise the profile of disability across the ages so that our key partners, be it either in health or the voluntary and community sector, know that it is a council priority.

“And that, in turn, starts the process of engaging with the commercial and private sector to help them understand the issues.”

However, with societal barriers like PIP cuts so woven into the Budget, how will the attempt to develop and implement this new strategy fair?

Like the GMCDP’s Mr Samphire, some could argue that Northern Powerhouse growth could be a double-edged sword for disabled people.

Mr Andrews said: “The AADS sits alongside a strong economic focus and growth in business.

“This is good for Manchester, good for local employment, and, accordingly, with a stronger emphasis on equality, this could mean more jobs for local disabled Mancunians.”

But the test for the Proper Manchester Welcome comes in whether disabled Mancunians will actually be able to get those jobs. 

Alongside attitude issues, if the strategy fails to help businesses realise that access needs to be integral from the inception of building and growth, inclusion will continue to be set back.

Mr Samphire said: “Many young people want to gain work but they get volunteering jobs.

“That’s great, but it’s 2016 now and we should see flexible working strategies in place – especially in Manchester. There’s an assumption that you [as a disabled person] can’t do something.

“At the end of the day I think it’s all about expense. People just think it’s added expense.”

What’s more, the Budget’s lowering and eradication of small business rates – which come a matter of months after the Chancellor was quoted saying that local government would keep the majority of revenue from these particular rates – could also hit Manchester City Council hard again.

But Mr Andrews said: “The council does not take the view that there is direct correlation between the council cuts and the key aims of the strategy.” 

Even so, councillors could soon have even more of a battle on their hands to make the pennies stretch to where it’s needed most.

The Model of Social Disability, for now, appears to hold strong, and endangers Manchester’s welcoming disposition. 

Image courtesy of BBC, via YouTube, with thanks

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