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Book review: The Battle for Sustainable Development


The phone rang one evening in 1997 and it was Walter Menzies, offering me a job.

I’m not saying he was Morpheus proffering a red or blue pill, but it definitely rated high on the index of life changing moments. I joined the Sustainability Northwest team, started working on regional sustainable development and have never looked back, continuing the mission in many ways to this day, with my team at Creative Concern and a wonderful swathe of clients and partners who know what real progress looks and smells like.

Walter is rightly and deservedly considered by a huge number of people as a true guru of sustainable development, particularly across what we once called the region of England’s Northwest: Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire.

From the early days of the Groundwork Federation through Sustainability Northwest, the Mersey Basin Campaign and more recently the Canal and River Trust, he has flown the flag irrepressibly for a different form of progress that balances social, economic and environmental concerns in pursuit of something different to business as usual; something called ‘sustainability’.

In this, his collection of writings on sustainability from across 30 or so years of tireless hard work and zeal, he neatly captures much of the energy and drive that saw the Northwest clean up its waterways, become genuine pioneers in early responses to climate change, build a renewable energy portfolio, reclaim vast areas of derelict land and park the green tanks of sustainability on the manicured lawn of the region’s corporate sector.

Along the way he pokes fun endlessly at the visioneering, jargonising and double-speak that all too often plagues projects particularly in the public sector. In an opening address to Jonathon Porritt for example he welcomed him to “England’s Northwest, a region that… has more visions than St Theresa, more pilots than the RAF and increasingly more partnerships than the entire chartered accountant profession.”

“What’s that over there?” He asks. “It’s a roundabout leading to an inward investment site, the pinnacle of achievement for local authority economic development.”

A recurring motif in Walter’s writing is the dismissal of ‘old school’ economic development as “a fantasy parallel universe dreamed up by in local authorities and assorted quangos.”

“What’s that over there?” He asks. “It’s a roundabout leading to an inward investment site, the pinnacle of achievement for local authority economic development.”

It's grim down South

Menzies rails against those who “think that shopping is the new shipping and that ‘retail-led’ regeneration is the answer: spend, spend, spend and consume more and more stuff to save ourselves.” He also writes on many occasions about the disparities in wealth, power and freedom in England, the over-dominance of London and the fact that in truth, as climate change tips them into the sea and their economy overheats, it is in fact ‘Grim Down South”. As he recalls:

“Perhaps the most inspired strike of our gone, but not forgotten, Northwest Development Agency was its inspired ‘Grim Down South’ campaign” he writes. “To promote our region to the captains of industry attending the 2004 CBI Conference in Manchester, ’It’s Grim Down South’ tags were hung on the doors of the city’s four and five-star hotel rooms. Huge success – Sir Humphrey empurpled with rage and terrific media coverage.”

A number of the inclusions in the book begin to serve as an informal history of the building of a true sustainability agenda in the 80s and 90s. There are passages that chart in particular the fertile few years just before and after the victory of New Labour where regionalism was buoyant and there was strong regional leadership through the North West Partnership and North West Business Leadership Team. Out of the sustainability principles in the first regional strategy of 1995 grew Sustainability Northwest and then Envirolink, Natural Economy Northwest, Renewables Northwest, ENWORKS, Newlands and the Northwest Climate Group.

There is history, rage, inspiration and some moments of wonderful indiscretion to be found in the book. A high point for me is when a civil servant who agreed to Groundwork’s ‘creative’ uses of the Derelict Land Grant is reported as saying “I must have been pissed when I agreed to that.”

The twin cities of Manchester and Liverpool run through the book as Walter celebrates the drive of the former and the passion of the latter. Whether its served up as the M62 corridor, the lower Mersey Basin, or Atlantic Gateway, this chunk of the Northern Way (with a small extension to Bollington) is Walter’s principal stomping ground and where he finds inspiration, particularly in the Northern Quarter and Fourways House where Groundwork, the Mersey Basin Campaign and ourselves at Creative Concern set up shop ten years ago:

“If Jane Jacobs were alive today, she’d love Manchester’s Northern Quarter. You can start the day with a fair trade coffee in funky Drip, provoke eco-warriors, pick up a writ from your solicitor, drop in on your architect, check on your comms people, enjoy a drink in a minimalist or kitsch bar and round off the perfect day - if that’s your way - in the gentlemen’s sauna – all without leaving the building! The converted cotton warehouse I work in is a thrilling soap opera. Mixed use? I’ll say.”

If there’s anything to let the book down it’s that the last few pieces are overly reliant on that scourge of the Powerpoint presentation, bullet points, but otherwise if you care about our region, have been involved in any of Walter’s ‘jiggery pokery’ over the last few decades or want to dip in and out of how sustainability can and ought to work across a major European region, this is well worth a read.