Leisure Services

The portfolio of Leisure Services covers a wide range of things that are often highly valued by the public. Manchester City Council owned and was responsible for parks and gardens, public baths and laundries, sports halls and leisure centres, public halls, including the city’s major concert venue, the Free Trade Hall, plus libraries, art galleries, museums and theatres. The Committee also had responsibility for allotments, cemeteries and crematoria and the organisation of a range of festivals and events.

In the period 1984 to 1997 that this chapter covers, the services were the subject of numerous changes to the management and committee structures, driven in parts by CCT and the overall budget cuts required. Repair and maintenance needs, beyond the funds available, led to closures and public outcry and protests. The protests for Victoria Baths were particularly well organised. The chapter also has a large section about Heaton Park, the franchise for the golf course proving particularly challenging on a political level, but also initial proposals being objected to strongly by the public.
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A Mishmash of Services
Prior to 1984, there was a clear separation in the departmental administration of the Council between what were regarded as ‘cultural’ and ‘recreational’ services. The Cultural Services Department had responsibility for libraries, art galleries, museums, theatres and a range of festivals and events. The Recreation Department had responsibility for parks and gardens, public baths, sports halls and leisure centres, along with public halls, including the city’s major concert venue, the Free Trade Hall.

It was an odd anachronism that the Free Trade Hall and the public halls (old town halls) that hosted concerts and meetings were included within the Recreation Department rather than Cultural Services. The Recreation Department also included public laundries – hardly a recreational activity – but these were usually connected to swimming pools and public baths (from an era when people didn’t have hot water and washing machines in their homes). Even more surprisingly, the department had responsibility for cemeteries, crematoria and the municipal burial service. But cemeteries had significant areas of land and flower beds to be maintained, so it made sense for them to be connected to parks and gardens, and, since crematoria and burial services were connected to cemeteries, there was a logic to this grouping.

Nonetheless, the main two groups of services that made up the Recreation Department – indoor (swimming baths, laundries and sports halls) and outdoor (parks and gardens) – were an unhappy combination put together during the 1974 local government reorganisation. What the department really needed to bring all these disparate services together, was a good manager. But the Chief Officer, by profession and training, was either a ‘parks man’ or a ‘baths man’ and tended to understand and empathise with one side or the other.

Changes to the Management of Leisure
In 1984 the Left merged the Cultural Services and Recreational Services Committees into one Leisure Services Committee (see chapter 4). The new committee, as can be seen from the above, had a huge range of responsibilities. Unlike the other three big committees (Education, Housing, Social Services), however, it didn’t experience any major political crises in the first three years of the new administration and the services it covered weren’t regarded as political priorities by most of the Left. Apart from the difficulty in getting Equal Opportunities principles accepted in the Recreation Department, the rows with the military over the Manchester Show and the sacking of three directors (George Lovell from Cultural Services, and Roy Bee and Sam Reid from Recreation), the main issues of concern were the weakness of the senior management and continuing problems with controlling the budget in the Recreation Department.

Then, in May 1987, the Chair of Leisure Services Committee, Marilyn Taylor, lost her seat in the local elections and Mike Harrison was elected chair in her place. He served for only a year before being elected Chair of Finance, at which point Kath Robinson took over with Nilofar Siddiqi as deputy[1]. One of her early tasks was to set in train the appointment of a new Director of Recreation, following the final departure of Sam Reid, who had been suspended for over 12 months (see chapter 4). The post was nationally advertised in June 1988. During Sam Reid’s suspension, his deputy, Jim Thomas, had been the acting director with the Head of the Finance and Personnel Division, Alan Jennings, as Acting Deputy Director.

Kath Robinson suspected that there were strong Masonic connections throughout the Recreation Department and the more she got to know about the budget and the staffing, the more convinced she became that the whole department needed a complete overhaul. In order to do it there needed to be a strong and competent director.

After the first round of advertising failed to produce anyone of sufficient calibre, a new director, Howell Williams, was finally appointed in early 1989. But he quickly succumbed to stress from the twin pressures of CCT and budget cuts and went off on prolonged sick leave. He left the Council after only 18 months in the job. A senior officer from the Treasurer’s Department, Roger Cornwall, was then appointed as acting director, with one of the assistant directors, Jeff Fisher, as acting deputy. Under this new leadership, competent junior managers were promoted and supported and the Recreation Department began to run more effectively.

However, the department failed to meet its allocated budget cuts for 1990/91 (£4.3 million – nearly 16% of its budget) and the Policy and Resources Committee issued stronger and stronger criticisms of the acting director (see chapter 18). The officers felt the criticism was completely unfair because they were unable to enact measures that would reduce costs due to opposition from the trade unions. The nature and timings of the services offered in leisure facilities, such as swimming baths and sports halls, meant that the most economical staffing regime would involve lots of part-time and casual staff. The unions were opposed to this form of staffing and went over the heads of the managers to the politicians, who gave in to the pressure that the unions could exert in the City Party.

Free Trade and Other Halls

Over the next 12 months the Leisure Services Committee’s role was almost completely usurped by the Budget Review Working Party (BRWP). As outlined in chapter 18, officers from the Chief Executive’s Department were seconded to the Recreation Department to review (and support the management of) the Free Trade Hall and the old town halls (Withington, Longsight, Levenshulme and Cheetham). But the time-scale for achieving any meaningful improvements in income and activity was too short and because the public halls (particularly Withington Town Hall) had a significant capital value, they were sold off to generate the vital capital receipts that were need to fund the capital programme. The Free Trade Hall, as the home of the Hallé Orchestra, was too important to close, but was included among the buildings being considered by the Urban Development Corporation (see chapter 24) and responsibility for its management it was transferred to the Head of Libraries and Theatres, David Owen[2].

Swimming Pools and Public Baths

During 1990, the BRWP had also commissioned officers in the Chief Executive’s Department to lead reviews of all the swimming baths in the city. They were a particular problem, being very expensive to run and incapable of generating increased income due to their poor physical state (there had been no money spent on renovating them for many years). The Sports Council had said that Manchester had too many pools (according to some formula involving square metres of water per head of population). So the intention was to close those that were in the worst state and examine what investment would be needed in the rest to make them capable of generating more income.

When the reports came back to the BRWP in July 1990, two baths were put forward for closure – the Victoria baths in Rusholme ward and those in Harpurhey, which was the ward that Graham Stringer represented. Not surprisingly, the latter was unacceptable, and the decision was made that no swimming pools would close and managers would be given discretion to increase income over the summer. It was also agreed that a strategy for swimming baths was needed and that there should be a further review of Harpurhey and Victoria Baths. These went on for some time and I had a suspicion, shared by others in the Labour Group, that Graham was unwilling to risk the political consequences of closing a facility in his ward that was very popular locally.

A decision was made in 1993 to close both of them. The closure of Victoria Baths caused a huge public outcry. A group of community activists and local residents formed a Friends of Victoria Baths group and approached Richard Leese, as Chair of Finance, to seek a reprieve. He was adamant that it should close, but agreed to the Friends group being granted a lease at a peppercorn rent so that they could seek external funding to carry out the necessary renovations[3]. In January 1996, the Council agreed to transfer the Harpurhey baths building to the North Manchester Regeneration company after spending £50,000 on urgent remedial works.

Surprisingly, the swimming baths in Sharston, Wythenshawe, although reasonably modern and in good condition, were reported to be not well used, with a declining income and so it was decided that they should close. There had been significant investment in diving boards at Sharston, but because of safety issues, a system had to be devised for separating the diving sections from the rest of the pool with a mobile inflatable ‘boom’ as and when diving groups required it. But, apparently because this was heavy to move, the staff were reluctant to do it very often, and so the demand from diving groups waned and the income subsequently dropped. With better local management, this unique provision could perhaps have been better exploited and generated more income, but the site was very marketable and so it was sold.

Public Laundries

Unlike swimming pools, the public laundries (of which Manchester Council owned 14 at the time) were deemed by the BRWP not to be a justifiable cost. They were an expensive provision, and although a very important service for poorer families without their own washing machines, they were also extensively used by small commercial operations, and by people who did have their own washing machines but found it cheaper to use the public laundries for their main weekly wash or for large items. It was agreed in June 1990 that the seven in the poorest state of repair should be closed immediately (Bradford, Central, Levenshulme, Whitworth Park, Miles Platting and two of the three in Moss Side) and the remaining seven should close in four months time.

Because of local protests, consultants were hired to look at the feasibility of converting these latter ones to community facilities. They concluded that none of them could be run at nil cost to the Council, so the BRWP decided that four more should be closed (Harpurhey, Clayton, Moston, Newton Heath) and further negotiations would be held with community groups for the remaining three (in Hulme, the Moss Side district centre and Varley Street in Central ward). These negotiations also failed to bring about a solution that would result in nil cost to the Council, so it was decided that these too should be closed.

The BRWP decisions were formally put through the Policy and Resources Committee, but the Labour councillors on the Leisure Services Committee were extremely miffed at the lack of consultation. At the full Labour Group, the councillors for the wards affected attempted to reverse these decisions. They were out-voted. Although there was no doubt in the minds of Labour councillors that the loss of these services would cause hardship to some of Manchester’s poorest residents, they were ‘between a rock and a hard place’, and the high costs of maintaining these old buildings and equipment just couldn’t be sustained.

Public Toilets, Allotments, Burial and Cremation

Around the same time, it was decreed (by the BRWP rather than the Leisure Services Committee) that all public conveniences would have to close, apart from one in the Town Hall extension, as would the central laundry in Broadfield Road, Moss Side. The BRWP also required that allotments, crematoria and cemeteries should become self-funding. These measures, particularly the closure of public toilets, caused a flurry of complaining letters to the Manchester Evening News, but the decisions were not changed. Allotments never did manage to become self-funding, but they significantly reduced their costs and were eventually deemed to be a ‘public good’ and so were kept.

Cuts in 1991-92
For the following year, 1991/92, further cuts of £3.8 million were allocated to the Leisure Services Committee. By September 1991 only half of this figure had been achieved and, at a joint meeting of the Policy and Resources, Finance and Leisure Services committees, it was finally recognised that the remaining £1.9 million was unachievable and it was agreed not to enforce it.

Throughout 1990 and 1991, at the same time as overseeing the budget-induced restructuring and staffing reductions in the Recreation Department, the committee and senior management team had to deal with the huge changes caused by Compulsory Competitive Tendering (see chapter 14). The department had to be split into three divisions – contracts, client and administration – and staff roles changed accordingly.

As if the Recreation Department was not demoralised enough by all this, the service plan put forward in 1991 was rejected by the Service Review Sub-committee, because it had only long-term targets and no clear shorter-term goals leading to the targets. However, despite these pressures and criticisms, the Recreation Department, with the help of the Enforced Tendering Team, did put in the most competitive bids for grounds maintenance, winning all but one of the contracts, and for the first tranche of Leisure Management (see chapter 14), winning a six-year contract to continue to provide these services.

Also on the positive side, the officers put forward proposals for a leisure strategy based on facilities having dedicated managers with devolved responsibilities for increasing income, and to develop policy guidance for sport and recreation. Some innovative schemes were agreed, such as jointly funding a development worker with the Sale Harriers and establishing partnerships with the Manchester water polo and basketball clubs. These provided sports coaches in schools at no cost to the council, raising the profile of their respective sports.

Libraries, Theatres and Cultural Events

On the other side of the Leisure Services Committee’s remit, libraries and theatres, there was less political angst and trauma, largely because the department was well-managed (see chapter 4). The swingeing cuts that had been allocated during 1990/91 as part of the preparation for the Poll Tax had been achieved by the director, David Owen, and his team of managers, but only by massively reducing library opening hours. This had resulted in huge numbers of letters to the Manchester Evening News and to Graham Stringer. He could tell that they were not being orchestrated by the department (he had a ‘nose’ for those sort of campaigns) and so the following year some of the cuts were reversed and library opening hours extended.

Meanwhile, the Festivals and Events Team in the Libraries and Theatres Department had drawn up plans for a Manchester International Festival of Arts and TV to be held in 1991. There had been a biennial organ recital festival for a number of years and the plan was to develop this into a much more ambitious project, in partnership with Granada TV. Financial support was obtained from the Central Manchester Development Corporation and the Manchester Evening News. This was very successful and the Council agreed to make it an annual event with sponsorship of £200,000 being negotiated from the Whitbread brewery (the makers of Boddington’s beer, advertised as ‘the cream of Manchester’) in return for naming it from then on Boddington’s Manchester Festival of Arts and TV.

Unlike the Recreation Department, the requisite service plan for libraries and theatres was immediately endorsed by the Service Review Sub-committee in January 1991. Producing this plan was not a problem for the director, as it had been with some departments, because something very similar had been in place since Kath Robinson became Chair in May 1988. David Owen had approached Kath at that time and suggested that he draw up a set of draft aims and objectives for the department, and how they could be achieved, for discussion with the staff and then for consideration by the Committee. He found it was a useful managerial exercise that made staff in the department think about what they were doing and why, and was not simply a paper exercise as some politicians believed.

The Committee decided in April 1991 that Manchester should bid to become ‘City of Culture and Drama’ in 1994. This was an Arts Council initiative due to start in 1992, with Birmingham being the first city to mount the year-long event. David Owen and Kath Robinson worked on the idea with Neil Fountain from the Chief Executive’s Department. After considering all the various art forms that might be included, it was decided to go just for City of Drama (CoD). Graham Stringer supported the idea as he was keen for anything that would enhance Manchester’s status, and £190,000 was made available to work up the bid. Arts-based organisations in the city were brought together to join a steering group to draw up plans and a bid was made to the Arts Council. Its success was announced at the Council meeting in January 1992.

A charity was set up to take over from the steering group with David Owen as secretary and Kath Robinson having a seat on the board. David Plowright from Granada TV was involved, as was Braham Murray from the Royal Exchange. Braham wanted Gerald Kaufman to be Chair of the Board, but as he was in London more than in Manchester (and was at the time not well disposed towards the Council), behind-the-scenes lobbying was needed to persuade people to elect Kath Robinson rather than Gerald. With her extensive networking skills, this was an inspired move.

Around this time, Graham Stringer persuaded the Airport Board to adopt a policy of donating 1% of its profits to arts and culture in Greater Manchester. This was later increased to 2%.


In the autumn of 1991, the BRWP had returned to its focus on the Recreation Department and the officers were deputed to start discussions with volunteer athletics clubs about expanding their use of, and taking over the operation of, the athletics tracks at Wythenshawe Park and Boggart Hole Clough. This saved the Council money but also enabled groups such as the Moston Harriers and Blackley Junior Harriers (later merged into one organisation) to extend and develop their services. [4]

Cemetries and Crematoria

The fees charged for burials and cremations were to be increased, as previously decided, to make the services self-funding. This decision was very controversial, but the view was taken that cemeteries and crematoria should operate at nil cost to Poll Tax payers. The new costs were still below those of the private sector and the charges for the municipal funeral service were not changed. Graham Stringer reported to the City Party that:

“This service remains unique and is a direct and positive way of helping people suffering from poverty… [it] is a cornerstone of the Council’s anti-poverty strategy.” [Surely an exaggeration!]

Grounds Maintenance

In April 1992, the Contracts Division’s grounds maintenance function was transferred from the Recreation Department to the City Engineer’s Department. This was partly because of that department’s experience in running a ‘traded’ service (and maintaining an acceptable standard of work), but also because there was a logic to managing the maintenance of roads, pathways and grassed areas together. The client side of grounds maintenance was transferred to the Operational Services Department, to join the client role for the other tendered services.

Change of Name
In May 1992, Pat Karney was elected as the Chair of the Leisure Services Committee[5] with Dot Rathbone as his deputy. Dot was also elected Chair of the Art Galleries Committee, with Kath Robinson as her deputy. Pat thought that Leisure was a Cinderella service and that the facilities like parks and swimming pools weren’t valued as much by council officers as they were by the people of Manchester.

At the first meeting of the new municipal year on 26 May 1992, the committee was renamed as the Arts and Leisure Committee to reflect:

“a renewed approach… including relating more to the wider world of the arts and entertainment… to link in with efforts being made corporately – eg the work of the Environmental Services Committee in relation to the entertainment clubs… Committee to be involved in forming future [three-year] plans for every facility within the leisure, theatres and library services”.

In a similar vein, the Art Galleries Committee was re-named as the Galleries and Museums Committee and was made a sub-committee of Arts and Leisure.

The re-election of the Tories at the 1992 general election brought further threats to local authority services with the fear that CCT would be extended to libraries and theatres. The director, David Owen, was instrumental in ensuring that this didn’t happen. He had been a member of the National Libraries and Information Services Commission set up in 1964, which gave advice to government ministers. When the government issued a green paper in 1989 entitled Charging for our Public Library Services, David was put on a Commission working party to draw up a response. Its final report made it clear that CCT would be too difficult to implement and would not be popular or successful. As a result of this, the minister didn’t pursue it.

Parks and the Incident of the Dead Donkey
Throughout the summer of 1992 discussions were held about transferring the remaining parts of the Recreation Department (parks, allotments, indoor leisure and sports development) to the Education Department in order to resolve the lack of senior management. Joint committee meetings were held to agree the formalities, and in November 1992 a Joint Adult Education and Leisure Division was created in the Education Department, with the Chief Education Officer, Roy Jobson, receiving an increase in salary for the additional responsibility. From then on, the term ‘leisure’ became the new definition of ‘recreation’, whereas in 1984 it was a term intended to bridge the divide between ‘cultural’ and ‘recreational’ activities.

Even though there were huge budget cuts to be achieved, it was recognised that successive years of cuts had caused the city’s parks to become very run down and neglected. It was felt that it ought to be possible to make some improvements, even within a heavily constrained financial regime, so it was agreed that a Facility Development Plan would be prepared for each park and the relevant officers were charged with producing them.

In the autumn of 1992, there had been concerns about increasing vandalism and a spate of attacks on park animals and workers. This gave the Lib Dems an opportunity to resurrect the issue of parks police. The parks police had been disestablished some years before because they weren’t particularly effective and were very resistant to changing their work practices. The Lib Dems created a huge fuss, but the Labour administration’s view at the time was that any criminality in the parks should be dealt with by the Greater Manchester police. Park wardens had been introduced who were supposed to perform a more educative role with the public.

Pat Karney was informed by someone in the Parks Department that animals in the pets’ corners had been killed, and that a donkey had been burnt at Platt Fields Park the previous year. A package of security measures was proposed by the officers, including changing the wardens’ role to include tackling vandalism, employing dedicated security patrols, setting up a steering group with the police and senior council managers, and establishing ‘park watch’ groups with local residents being encouraged to become volunteer park rangers.

A press release was sent out and the Lib Dems jumped on the proposals as a ‘climbdown’ from the previous policy and a vindication of their opposition to the abolition of the parks police. The ‘dead donkey’ story was highlighted in the Manchester Evening News, following which the Lib Dems claimed that it was a complete fabrication by Pat in order to capitalise on the very popular TV comedy called Drop the Dead Donkey. After further investigation – and much more press coverage and banter within the Council chamber – it turned out that the donkey incident had happened six years previously.

On the one hand, the donkey story provided some light relief in an otherwise dark and miserable climate, but on the other hand it felt to me at the time that the pain and trauma of the budget cuts we were going through were being trivialised. Pat sent a memo to the Labour Group in December explaining how the story had originated and implying that it was a deliberate ploy to divert press attention from the major cuts.

Cuts in 1993
On 4 December 1992, Pat Karney issued a memo for the Labour Group listing the agreed Arts and Leisure cuts of less than half a million pounds (below). The target cut was £3.3 million (£2 million from Leisure and £1.3 million from Libraries and Theatres) and there had been much press coverage in November about the possible closure of the Forum Theatre (saving £220,000) and six branch libraries, but Pat didn’t mention this in his memo.

“Agreed cuts:

  • Cease house-to-house delivery of the A-Z guide (£50,000)
  • Reduce libraries book fund (£150,000) and periodicals fund (£10,000)
  • Other measures in parks and swimming pools (£93,600)
  • End the lease on the Higher Education precinct Library (£60,000)
  • Closure of the pets’ corners at Platt Fields, Debdale and Fog Lane and move the animals to Heaton and Wythenshawe parks. Saving of £110,000.” [This last one proved to be very to be very controversial and generated a lot of press coverage.]

In January 1993, the Manchester Evening News gave more coverage to the £3.3 million cuts from Arts and Leisure. The story was splashed over the whole of the front page, with colour pictures and the headline ‘Forum Theatre and Library Theatre under threat’ and the secondary line “Closure of Forum Theatre as a production arm of Library Theatre would save £220,000”. This proposed cut to the Forum Theatre wasn’t pursued because, having successfully bid for Manchester to be the City of Drama in 1994, it would have been embarrassing for the Council to be closing one of the city’s theatres. The BRWP quietly reduced the budget cuts required of the Libraries and Theatres Department.

Another Restructure
In October 1993, the Joint Adult Education and Leisure Division of the Education Department was disestablished and a separate Leisure Division created[6]. A new Head of Leisure, Jim Byrne, was appointed in February 1994. He had previously been the Head of the Careers Service and a senior manager in the Education Department.

The Arts and Leisure Committee agreed to adopt a strategic approach to Leisure – ie promoting access to facilities rather than just providing them directly, promoting events and supporting Friends of Parks groups – and in early 1994, a draft Leisure Strategy was agreed as a basis for public consultation. Under Jim Byrne’s management, the Leisure Division adopted a more business-like approach to service delivery and further innovations were sought.


A new partnership was established with the Northern Tennis Club, which gave Manchester schools access to their facilities, and a joint development with Manchester City FC was initiated to set up a sports complex at Platt Fields Park with a grant from Sport England. This was (and continues to be) jointly managed by Manchester City and the council and includes a training centre for the club’s youth team.

Another innovative scheme was developed with Broughton Park Rugby Club, which owned a rather dilapidated piece of land at Hough End in south Manchester. The council owned a better piece of land nearby and a land swap was organised with the rugby club’s land being sold for a housing development and the capital used to develop better pitches and a club house on the land that belonged to the council, thereby increasing the available facilities for Manchester’s young people.

Park Security

In February 1994, the issue of security in the city’s parks came back onto the Arts and Leisure Committee agenda. The mobile security service employed by the Land and Property Department to patrol its buildings was to be contracted to provide a service for the city’s parks from April, cracking down on crime and vandalism. Park wardens would do two-hourly security patrols in all the parks and ‘park watch’ schemes involving local residents would be set up. Rewards were to be offered for information leading to the arrest of vandals.

The details of the security patrols were covered in a confidential report, because it contained commercial information. But the Lib Dems leaked some of the information in their election leaflets, claiming that parks were being privatised, and then tried to raise these issues at the February Arts and Leisure Committee. Pat Karney refused to let them speak at the Committee, which led to them calling an extraordinary Council meeting on 9 March 1994, at which they put forward an extraordinarily personalised attack on Pat Karney as a motion of no confidence:

“Council is sick and tired of the undemocratic, rude and arrogant way in which councillor Karney conducts meetings of the Arts and Leisure Committee. Council has no confidence whatsoever in his ability to chair these meetings and calls upon him to resign. By way of example of his latest exploits, at the meeting of the Arts and Leisure Committee of 7 February he refused to allow any opposition councillor to speak on an important item dealing with security in our parks. In his usual dictatorial way he closed the meeting of the committee, knowing full well that the official opposition wished to move an amendment on this item, which did not differentiate between high priority and low priority parks.

“Council regrets having to consider such resolutions but, when chairs of committees act in such a high-handed manner, then there is no alternative than to call such action to account.”

This was of course perceived as a pre-election publicity stunt. The Labour Group voted it down and put forward its own motion:

“This council condemns the Liberal Democrat Group for putting at risk jobs of the workforce of this city council by making public confidential information about our security service from the Arts and Leisure Committee agenda of 7 February. We further deplore their attempt to divert attention from their irresponsible actions by calling this special council meeting using the most spurious reasons.”

The whole incident to me smacked of the ‘yah-boo’ politics typical of Westminster with some of the Lib Dems behaving like petulant children.

Parks Maintenance

The problems with the maintenance of the city’s parks were the subject of many meetings between officers and committee chairs from Arts and Leisure, Highways and Cleansing, and Land and Property, all of which had an involvement with them. It was recognised that there was a mismatch between the politicians’ aspirations for parks and open spaces and their current condition and low level of investment. It had been calculated that £75 million was needed to bring over 100 parks up to an acceptable community standard. So it was decided to mount a national campaign, directed at the government, to get permission to borrow the necessary capital for improvements, but none was forthcoming.

A Parks Management Group was set up (consisting of chairs and deputies as above, plus Children’s Services and Catering) to oversee the operation and improvement of all the parks, and a city parks manager was appointed. All the principal parks were to have an identified parks manager, with the smaller parks being grouped in clusters and allocated to one of them.

Mobile Bandstand

In pursuance of Pat Karney and Dot Rathbone’s declared aim to bring more fun and enjoyment to the city, the Committee agreed in March 1994 to the purchase of a mobile bandstand (£32,000) for putting on concerts in parks. The idea came from Jeff Stanniforth (Head of Parks) who wanted to liven up the parks but knew that the static bandstands in the bigger parks were in a poor state and subject to vandalism. The mobile bandstand proved to be a great success and gave local bands and school orchestras an opportunity to showcase their repertoires.

City Pride and Manchester Irish Festival
In June 1994, the Leisure Strategy was agreed, having been revised in the light of the consultation. But the BRWP was still closely scrutinising the Committee’s budgets since they were still not under control and the lack of money hampered the strategy’s implementation.

In November 1994, the Arts and Leisure Committee received a consultants’ report from the City Pride Working Group on Arts, Sports and Culture. City Pride was a government-led initiative, set up in 1993, that intended to foster co-ordination across local authority boundaries. There were a number of ‘topic’ groups, and the one dealing with arts, sports and culture had four strategic aims:

  1. Developing the city’s cultural heritage and encouraging its wider use.
  2. Enhancing the sense of place and urban culture.
  3. Developing opportunities for training and employment in cultural industries.
  4. Promoting wider participation in cultural activities.

The City Pride initiative had been led by Neil Fountain from the Chief Executive’s Department, using consultants, as in many other cases. The arts and culture consultants were called the Urban Cultures Partnership and their report identified the need for the Council to have a Corporate Arts and Culture Strategy. It was recommended that ways be found to narrow the gap between those who currently participated in (and benefited from Council expenditure on) arts and culture activities, and those who didn’t. The Arts and Culture Committee agreed that a strategy would be developed called Manchester First, and all the departments of the Council co-operated to raise the profile of arts and culture in the city.

Manchester’s Theatres

In March 1995, the consultants who had been commissioned to study the operation of the city’s theatres concluded that they should remain under direct Council control, but operate like a separate business unit, in the same way as other trading services, such as the City Catering Department (trading as Manchester Fayre). This was agreed, but the Council went further and set up the Library Theatre Company as an independent limited liability company with charitable status.

At the first Arts and Leisure Committee meeting following the May 1995 local elections, a report was received from Salford University on the successful outcomes of the City of Drama year. Their study showed that, in addition to the success of the drama events and the many educational benefits that accrued from them, there was a £3 million net gain to the city’s economy. The project not only kept within its budget but it was expected that there would be a surplus. This was a win, win, win outcome!

Festival of Irish Culture

At the same meeting, Pat Karney floated the idea of the city hosting a Festival of Irish Culture the following year. He had been approached by the Irish County Associations, which had large memberships in Manchester, and arranged for there to be a big open meeting on 31 May 1995 for interested people to generate ideas.

David Owen was very keen that his department should support this initiative as he had thought for some time that the various smaller celebrations that the county associations put on could be brought together to form one big citywide festival. As the City of Drama, for which he was the company secretary, had ended with a budget surplus and the company articles stated that money could be used for appropriate, related activities, he felt it was appropriate to make £100,000 available for ‘pump-priming’ an Irish festival. In order to attract sponsorship he sent a letter to the heads of marketing at Guinness and Murphy’s offering them a “fantastic sponsorship opportunity” and got both companies to bid for this ‘prize’, rather than approaching them cap in hand. Guinness made the best offer and agreed to sponsor the Manchester Irish Festival of Arts and Music for three years.

The date was fixed for 10-17 March 1996 (St Patrick’s Day) and at the January 1996 meeting Pat Karney announced the festival was to be launched by none other than the Irish president, Mary Robinson. The Council agreed to contribute £35,000 from the policy initiatives budget and to make the Town Hall available for the Saturday evening final party. Guinness provided free drinks all evening and the event was so successful the organisers thought they couldn’t possibly repeat it the following year. But they did, and for the 1997 festival, Pat Karney managed to get the US Ambassador to Dublin, Pat Kennedy, to launch it, and the following year, the then Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlem.

Heaton Park
A major leisure-related issue, that had a huge significance for the Labour Group and the Council in the 1990s, was to do with the biggest and oldest of the city’s parks, Heaton Park in north Manchester. I believe the way that Graham Stringer handled this issue was the start of events that led to the end of his leadership of the Council.

During 1990, the BRWP considered the matter of Heaton Park and its annual net costs of £1million. The park is the largest municipal park in Europe, having been acquired by the City Council (along with the historic hall) in 1902, but despite these large annual costs, the landscape and buildings were deteriorating, because of a lack of investment in the infrastructure. There was also a lack of co-ordination between the different Council departments that managed the various services within the park. The Recreation Services Department managed the park areas, the Art Galleries Department managed Heaton Hall, and the City Catering Section of the Direct Works Department managed the catering at the Hall and in the café. The boating on the lake and the golfing were franchised out to private operators.

In December 1990, consultants were commissioned to do a full review and they presented their report to the members of the BRWP in June 1991. The report was extensive and detailed. Its proposals included developing and restoring the Hall (including displaying art collections); developing the farm buildings into a farm centre and expanding the horticultural centre; developing the stable block into a visitor centre with a café/restaurant; creating a new golf complex with clubhouse and facilities; and adding a new driving range and improved course. This last project was to prove a political nightmare (see later).

The main thrust of the recommendations was that a charitable trust should be set up to run the park and to enable endowment funds to be raised for the much needed capital investment. BRWP members were unhappy about this, believing that the report’s recommendations for operational changes within the park could be achieved by the Council itself (with private sector involvement). So a strategy was agreed that was designed to transform the park into a regional leisure attraction, generating private sector investment and commercial developments, while at the same time safeguarding the historically and biologically important aspects of the landscape and structure.

It was estimated that a total of £8 million investment over a five-year period would be needed for the park and hall. Around £3 million of that was to be generated from commercial developments, including the golfing facility and commercial/retail outlets on one side of the park, and it was believed that the Heritage Lottery Fund would be able to provide some funding for the historically important buildings and landscape.

The Council formally agreed in December 1991 that a trust was not appropriate, and that possible leasing or franchising of golf club activities would be considered. As a first step it was agreed to establish a Facility Management Team (by seconding two council officers to be manager and deputy) and a Joint Management Team with representatives of all the service departments with a stake in the park. The facility manager was given the authority to co-opt people on to the joint management team with specific expertise in marketing, finance, planning and so on as and when required.

A discrete cost centre was to be set up within the Council’s budget by bringing together all the relevant budgets from different service departments, but it proved to be extremely difficult to disaggregate budgets in this way (see later). A panel of elected members was established with delegated powers from the Policy and Resources Committee to oversee the developments. These were to be the chairs or nominees of Art Galleries, Direct Works, Planning, Leisure Services and Policy and Resources, as well as local councillors.

Despite this high-powered scrutiny, very little happened on the ground. Progress was made difficult by the implementation of CCT arrangements affecting the Recreation Department and City Catering. The Recreation Department had been split into two with the ‘client’ side being established as Manchester Leisure, located within the Education Department, as this was felt to be the strongest department managerially. The ‘contractor’ side was located within the City Engineer’s Department (see chapter 14). The management of Heaton Park transferred from the Recreation Department to Manchester Leisure. Cost-centre budgeting didn’t happen as planned, with the park budget being made part of the overall budget for Outdoor Leisure, and the Grounds Maintenance budget being managed by the City Engineer.

Golf Franchise at Heaton Park

Piecemeal improvements continued within Manchester Leisure’s limited budget and opportunities for commercial development were sought. Then, in December 1993, formal advertisements for proposals in relation to the golfing franchise were published.

Eleven operators submitted proposals, three of which were shortlisted. The successful bid was by Messenger Golf Services, which was part of Eddie Shah’s Messenger Group of companies. Eddie Shah was the print mogul who destroyed the print unions in a long-running and bitter dispute at his Warrington print works and Manchester news offices in 1982. The very mention of his name was enough to raise the blood pressure of all trade unionists and City Party delegates.

I couldn’t understand how the officer team could have been unaware of the political sensitivity of this company submitting a bid. Even if they were, at some point Graham Stringer must have known who the three short-listed companies were and realised the row that would follow, although he would have been advised that political considerations could not be allowed to influence financial decisions of the Council. In my view, the way Graham handled the situation from that point on was the beginning of the end of his Council Leadership.

The Policy and Resources Committee on 9 June 1994 had a confidential report on the subject as the last item on the agenda. Graham hadn’t prioritised it for discussion and time ran out at the Labour Group pre-meeting before we got to it. As we walked out of the room towards the main committee meeting, I caught Graham at the door and asked him what we were going to do about the controversy it would cause. He simply shrugged his shoulders. Richard Leese was absent from the meeting, as were a number of key north Manchester councillors, and it seemed that none of the other Labour members on the Committee had read the report closely enough to spot which company was being recommended.

By the time the issue came to the full Labour Group on 21 June, City Party delegates and members who were not on the Policy and Resources Committee became aware of it and created an almighty row, because they hadn’t seen the report or known beforehand what was going on. So, at the Council meeting the following day, the item was withdrawn “because not all members have had the chance to read the report”. It was noted that “all members of the Council have now had a copy of the report”. This was not a straightforward issue, since confidential reports were not normally available for all councillors to read.

Following discussions at the City Party and the Labour Group, it was agreed that the best way forward would be to consult the public about the proposals. So, at the July 1994 Council meeting, an additional recommendation was made:

“Council notes the outcome of the evaluation of tenders for the operation, maintenance, development and funding of the golf facility at Heaton Park, with the best offer having been submitted by Messenger Leisure Ltd, and agrees to move to a full consultation exercise. Officers to be authorised to clarify all outstanding issues and report back to the Council through the Policy and Resources Committee.”

The Lib Dems opposed this amendment and moved to accept the Messenger bid outright. Surprisingly, the Tories didn’t support them, but supported Labour’s approach.

The difficulty now faced by councillors was that political considerations couldn’t be taken into account when considering commercial issues, since the best deal had to be found for using public assets. Fortunately there were many other issues that hadn’t been given due consideration, including the fact that Eddie Shah wanted a 25 to 30-year lease, control over a huge area (205 acres) of the park, and intended to increase the charges significantly. A public consultation exercise was mounted and the massive number of local residents who attended meetings and made their views known was a big surprise, even to those who had felt confident local people would want to have a say in the proposals. Nearly 5,000 protests about the Messenger Group plans were received and one of the outcomes of the public consultations was that a Friends of Heaton Park group was set up to work with the Council on future developments in the park.

A new report, including the outcome of the consultation, was submitted to the Policy and Resources Committee meeting on 26 September 1994 and the following was minuted:

“We are aware that the chairman of Messenger Leisure Ltd and its parent company Messenger Group Ltd is Mr S E Shah, who has been the subject of controversy in the past because of involvement in industrial disputes. We have not allowed such matters to influence our consideration of the proposals put forward.

“It is clear from the consultation exercise that, whilst the majority of people in north Manchester and the users of the park want to see investment in, and improvement of, the park and it facilities, there is significant public concern about the scale and size of development proposals under the present bid, the proposed pricing structure for the facilities, and about possible loss of public sector control over an important public asset.

“Officers have therefore indicated potential alternative options within the report which could answer those concerns and have also submitted further written information for our meeting.

“However [there is] insufficient information on all options available… Therefore deferred pending further report.”

Consultants’ Report on Heaton Park

At a joint meeting of the Policy and Resources and Finance Committees on 19 December 1994, a further report was presented by the Chief Executive. It had been put together by a team of six officers from the departments of the Chief Executive, the City Treasurer, the City Solicitor, the City Planning Officer and the Leisure division of Education. The minutes of the 19 December meeting reported:

“At our meeting in September [it was] decided that there was insufficient information on all the options to be able to make a decision on the best way forward… a further report was requested… Re-examination of the development of the golf facilities has required a review of the strategy for the park as a whole, taking into account our vision for its future development, leisure and landscape strategies, funding requirements and potential funding sources for implementation of these strategies… Consultants were retained to assist… After having considered all the factors involved, we are agreed that [the] strategy for regeneration of the park should first of all prioritise improvement to the park to enable it to ensure that it is a good quality family oriented leisure facility for the local and city wide population. This would require a balanced and improved mix of facilities, in which golf does not dominate, and a lower key development, which would complement the nature of the park in accordance with the expressed demands of its users, rather than high profile golf or other commercial development. In order to fully develop this strategy, we have authorised the Chief Executive to carry out further work… and report back to us in March 1995… The Chief Executive will have delegated authority to employ any necessary specialist consultants…

“In the context of this strategy and taking into account all the matters referred to in the present and previous reports, we recommend a golf development which will provide a good quality accessible facility for the local and city wide population without unduly affecting the availability of other areas in the park for alternative passive and active leisure users. We therefore propose that the golf facility is developed along the following lines… [list of detailed recommendations, but essentially a “reduced scale investment approach”]

“In coming to this decision we have borne in mind the following:

“- …provided the operation of the golf facilities is of a high standard, the provision of improved facilities is not a high-risk undertaking. It would therefore be financially most beneficial to the Council to undertake the capital development itself and therefore preserve more of the profit for itself;

“- this approach will put the City Council in a better position to exercise closer control over the use and operational standard of the asset;

“- the feeling expressed in the public consultation exercise about ‘privatisation’ of the park facilities and the use of a public asset for private profit. This is a leisure asset which can be profitably maintained within the public sector and we consider that it should be so.”

KPMG were commissioned to produce a strategy and business plan for Heaton Park and this was presented, together with a covering report from the Chief Executive, to the Policy and Resources Committee in April 1995. The team of officers working on it was expanded to include the Head of the Enforced Tendering Unit, as there were implications for the client/contractor split work then going on. It was agreed that money should be spent on essential capital works on the listed buildings within the park (the Finance Committee was to determine where this money should come from); a park manager should be appointed as soon as possible; a ‘cost centre’ budget should be established as a matter of urgency; the grounds maintenance regime should be restructured; and tender documentation should be prepared for an operator for the golf facility on the basis of a re-sited driving range, clubhouse and car park. It was also agreed that the park’s user groups should be consulted, the business plan be refined and English Heritage be consulted about possibilities of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

Three months later, in July 1995, the Finance Committee recommended that a £713,000 loan should be granted from the development fund for the golf facility improvements, to be repaid over five years at 8.5% interest. It also recommended a vigorous pursuit of external income from car parking, events and catering and so on. The city engineer reported back on discussions with landscape architects on how the grounds maintenance would be improved.

In September 1995, the Chief Executive reported back to the Policy and Resources Committee. Following the consultation on the planning application, minor changes were made to the siting of the clubhouse and driving range, while expressions of interest in operating the golf facility were being evaluated with a view to inviting tenders for a contract start in April 1996. The chairs of the relevant committees had decided that there shouldn’t be an in-house bid to run the golf, since the necessary expertise wasn’t there, but that there should be bids for the associated works in catering, cleaning and maintenance.

The Arts and Leisure Committee agreed to capital expenditure of around £270,000 for repairs to the listed buildings and the park gates, and for security and anti-vandalism measures throughout the park. After extensive discussions with English Heritage, a job description for the post of park manager was agreed, the post advertised and an appointment panel set up. Setting up a cost centre for the park had proved much more problematic, as it involved the transfer of budgets from five committees. It was agreed that the cost centre should be established for the 1996/97 financial year, by which time it was hoped the new park manager would be in post.

In the February/March 1996 committee cycle, a further report went to the Policy and Resources, Arts and Leisure, and Galleries and Museums Committees. After evaluating the tender bids for the capital works on the golf facility, the one deemed to be the best and closest to the English Heritage recommendations required a further £125,000 to be added to the loan from the development fund. This was agreed, on the basis that there would be increased income from catering and the licensed bar, which would enable repayment of the loan. However, the projected timescale for completion of the building works was much longer than had originally been planned, so there was concern about the level of income that could be generated during 1996/97. Eighteen companies expressed an interest in operating the golf facility and tender documents were due to be evaluated in March with the assistance of KPMG. The Policy and Resources Committee delegated the final decisions to the Chief Executive.

A park manager appointment was made from within the Council (Theresa Grant) and a Management Committee for the park was formally constituted on 12 March 1996.

The total capital requirement for the park was put at £30 million. A Heritage Lottery Fund grant was expected and the City Council contribution was estimated to be anything between £1.65 million and £6.15 million. It was expected that the Council would be legally bound to carry out significant restorative works to important structures within the park of around £6-7 million, with an immediate requirement of £400,000 for 1996/97.

Six new tenders were received for the golf operation and in July 1996 the report to the Policy and Resources Committee recommended acceptance of the one from Sunley World of Golf. It was reported that Heritage Lottery Fund was likely to provide 83% of the total funding for the park, leaving the Council to provide £5.3 million. A sum of £1.8 million had already been committed, which left a balance of £3.5 million to be found by 2002, which was manageable.

It had taken two years after the Eddie Shah fiasco for a golf operator to be finally agreed, but the overall regeneration of the park had progressed dramatically during that time. If the Messenger Group bid had gone ahead, the whole structure and nature of the park would have been very different. The whole episode indicated to me that Graham Stringer had either become so out of touch with the public and some basic left-wing principles (having become so close to high-powered business people) or he believed he was powerful enough to over-ride the inevitable objections from Mancunians, who felt strongly about their public parks, and his Labour Party and trade union colleagues, who felt strongly about powerful capitalists who had ridden roughshod over working people.


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Editor’s Comments

I found this chapter troublesome to split into sub-sections because of the so many different strands. I have ended up using an extra layer of sub-headings because I felt it useful to highlight the changes of subject area, but in some cases a sub-section only has a paragraph. It feels to me that the section about Heaton Park could almost be a chapter in its own right, especially if Kath is right that this series of events were what led to Graham Stringer’s loss of leadership. However, although she says that is her belief, I don’t feel she has really got across why that would be so.

On a personal note, what Kath hasn’t mentioned about Victoria Baths is that when she first moved to Manchester, when I was eight, that was our nearest swimming pool, via a walk through Whitworth Park. The house we moved into didn’t have an inside toilet or a bathroom – that was in 1973. We had a mortgage and a grant from the Council. The grant was to put a bathroom and toilet inside the house. I remember while the work was being doing when we first moved, we had to go to Victoria Baths to have a bath. They had cubicles that had a standard bath inside and coin machines for the hot water, like you still sometimes get at camp sites. The four of us of – two adults and two children – went and used one bath full of water (not all in it at the same time!).

We also used to go swimming there regularly, by bus from school, but also in the holidays a group of children would go by ourselves on foot through the park. When I have done the route as an adult, I feel it’s quite a long way for children under 10 to be going by themselves, but it wasn’t thought anything then. I remember very clearly one school swimming lesson having to sit out at the side because Mum had sent me to school with my PE kit not my swimming kit. Later when I was a masters student at UMIST in 1988-90, I went to the Turkish baths there a few times with my friend, on a ladies only day. It was such an experience and is an amazing building. I’m not surprised that there was an outcry and passion for it to be saved.


[1] See Appendix 23A for the list of all chairs and deputies

[2] David Owen remained the Director of Libraries and Theatres for many years, having earned and retained the confidence and respect of councillors.

[3] They later won £2 million funding for its partial renovation from the BBC programme Restoration (the total required costs were £7 million).

[4] Editor’s note: The relatively small attention paid in this chapter to athletics is partly related to Kath’s lack of interest in it but also it’s covered in more detail in chapter 26 in the context of Manchester’s Olympic bids.

[5] Pat Karney adopted the policy he had implemented in 1984, when he was Chair of the Direct Works Committee, of allowing other members of the committee to chair the meeting from time to time to gain experience. In October 1992, Mary Humphreys, newly elected that May, chaired the Committee; in March 1993, Sheila Smith; and in June 1993, Gary Betney, newly elected a month previously.

[6] The direct services division in Education was also disestablished and an Adult, Youth and Curriculum Division established, with Briony Clayton being appointed as its head.

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Further Reading

  • History of Victoria Baths: Timeline  and story of closure and Friends Group
  • ‘Manchester sets out to explore television and art’ by Tom Morris, Independent, 25 August 1992
  • There is a brochure for Boddington’s Manchester Festival of Arts and Television, presented 9-26 September 1993 in the National Archives
  • Article about Manchester City of Drama 1994 by Sabine Durnat, Independent, 17 March 1993,
  • As of 2016, Heaton Park Golf Course is operated by Mack Golf. “Mack Golf operates Golf Courses across the UK & Ireland. Each course is a public golf facility, meaning it is open to all who wish to have a game.”
  • History of Heaton Park on MCC website and Wikipedia and manchesterhistory.net (Manchester View – all images copyright David Boardman).
  • Heaton Park Golf Club (old site?)
  • ‘Manchester’s Heaton Park and its historic hall to get £800,000 revamp’, by Chris Slater, Manchester Evening News, 30 March 2015.
  • Friends of Heaton Hall  on facebook

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