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Concrete decisions

Submitted by on January 19, 2014 – 6:35 pmNo Comment

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By Rob Allen

Taking a stroll along the canal sides of Salford Quays, you might struggle to gain any real sense of their original purpose, the lives that were supported by the international shipping trade or the tumultuous journey that the Manchester Ship Canal visionaries had to negotiate to get the first spade in the ground.

Opposition to building a huge great canal through the middle of the North West was always going to be significant, especially from our distant cousins at the other end of the River Mersey.
We find ways of getting over these humps though, and what unfolded in the years leading to the canal’s opening in 1894 was arguably one of the last great displays of Northern chutzpah, attempting to kick-start recovery from a long economic depression with ingenuity, ambition and sheer hard work.

The Thames and the Tyne find their own way out to sea, but these people decided that muscle was equal to nature and men could dig their way out to the coast to bring the sea inland.
Of course, within a century the whole idea had skidded on its back pockets and the Ship Canal had started to resemble little more than a depository for shopping trolleys and lost footballs, if you forgot the romance of the original endeavour.

The financial bounty it had promised never really arrived. The odd ship sailed down, past the windows of people doing the washing up in Eccles, causing the harbourmaster to remember where he’d left the keys for the swing bridges, but Salford Quays didn’t even last the century.

It was just what a northern city in 1982 needed to be left with – an inland port that nobody else was much interested in, complete with its own set of rotting warehouses.

That the life of the Ship Canal and the Quays were book-ended by hard times was perhaps ironic, or unfortunate depending on how far away you were stood, but surely the most remarkable difference that 100 years made was the lack of great ideas as to how the city and Greater Manchester could dig itself out of a new hole, not entirely of its own making.

There’s a story that an expert on the history of Salford Quays used to tell visitors to The Lowry, for which there is no easily accessible paper trail for verification. Certainly, nobody has posted any information to the internet about a proposal to fill Salford Quays with concrete in the nineties, seeking to turn it into a car park to service the increasing crowds heading to home games at a resurgent Manchester United Football Club.

Could it be true? We have no reason to believe it isn’t, so let’s plod on under the assumption it is.

For all the lives that were lost in its making, the awe-inspiring progression of the initial brainwave to the finished result, and the history associated with the docks and the communities that surrounded them, the idea to infill the unloved Salford basins with concrete was apparently put on the table for the civic planners to consider.

Somebody somewhere believed it was the best option for those deep, long, man-made quays, seeing it as the obvious answer.

That Salford Quays, a shipping port, could have been sacrificed to make way for road vehicles would have been an irony to eat with a spoon, and that United could have been indirectly responsible is the subject of a hypothetical debate we’ll have at a time when we’ve got more time to waste.

But it’s surely the lazy, short-term, single hammer blow quality of the idea that is so startling. It has echoes of current, popular thought when it comes to public policy, pouring metaphorical concrete into anything the Ministry of Close-it-down can get its hands on. Take a stroll down there today and you might see people swimming in the docks, learning to canoe or taking in an exhibition.

Consider the alternative of a huge car park, unremarkable in its expansive grey cheapness and be thankful that inspiration eventually hit and a different kind of dice got rolled.

The story isn’t over yet, as the area continues to evolve, but the water wouldn’t be there had it not been for the ingenuity or idiocy of the likes of Daniel Adamson, his business associates in Victorian Lancashire and their determination to overcome repeated obstructions put in their way by politicians, opposition groups and fearful neighbouring cities.

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So, we come to the present day when perceptibly silly, ambitious and controversial ideas are causing similar ructions in a new era when the city of Manchester and the wider country is besieged by the vagaries of the financial industries, corporate tax loopholes, ideologically stunted politicians and popular culture so locked into inanity that nobody can quite work out whether Saturday night TV is 75% or 100% marshmallow.

At the time of writing, a judge had ruled that a new football ground could be built in Moston, despite the sustained objections of a number of residents.

Signalling the natural progression from the bar room dreams of a few pioneers that caught fire in 2005, Football Club United of Manchester stands on the precipice of a ‘bricks and mortar’ validation of the stupidity, the romance and the ideologies that have caused endless debate, not only on the very existence of the club in a football world so driven by opposing forces, but its sustainability and likelihood of ever finding permanence when it came to its home turf.

Opposition came in the form of members of the ‘United family’, it came in the form of traditional adversaries who dress in blue and it came in the form of legal action from motivated local people.

At a time when motivation to challenge local government seems in short supply, you can at least respect their impetus.

Nobody is comparing FC United to the visionaries who proved they were equal to the flow of rivers and streams by digging a 36 mile, inland shipping lane during the age of steam (you can if you want), but as the club and its members enter a new realm – of owning their own property – it’s useful to be reminded of the difference between idealists, romantics and those people who would be content to pour concrete into your canal.

The hurdles that have been passed are now past and, as you look forward to the next stage of your occasionally absurd venture, look out for the lazy thinkers: the set in their ways and the unimaginative who are content with the obvious answer, telling you it’s progress when what you actually set out to achieve was change.

- This article was featured in issue 10 of A Fine Lung. To buy back issues or T-shirts please visit our online stall here.

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