A group of women from Manchester have won a legal battle with the city’s council, which wanted to build a 440-space car park next to the city centre’s only primary school.
Campaigners said the victory exposed the “hypocrisy” in the local authority’s approach to addressing air pollution and global heating.
It may also be viewed as a warning shot to other councils which, like Manchester, declare “climate emergencies” and then push through polluting development projects.
Manchester city council (MCC), which is running a public consultation on how to save £50m, spent an estimated £70,000 on some of England’s top planning barristers to fight a community group called Trees Not Cars.
Gemma Cameron, a software engineer and mother of one, formed the group after learning that MCC had given itself planning permission to put a 440-space car park on an abandoned retail park next to New Islington free school in Ancoats.
In 2017 MCC paid £37m for the Central Retail Park in a joint venture with a private equity company owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan,an Abu Dhabi prince who owns Manchester City football club.
The plan was to build a temporary car park before the land was turned into offices.
Trees Not Cars proposed the 10-acre site be turned into a “people’s park” instead, and staged various protests to make their case. Unlike London or New York, Manchester does not have any major parks in the city centre.
When sit-ins and petitions failed, they brought a judicial review which argued the application should have been blocked because of air pollution.
After a high court judge ruled in their favour on Friday, Cameron said: “This is the first time we are aware of a community group beating the council in a legal challenge … It’s time for communities to fight back.”
She added: “Now that we have won, we need to turn serious attention to questioning the judgment and competence of the council in using public money to pursue a polluting car park at enormous expense to the taxpayer.”
As well as paying its own costs, estimated by Trees Not Cars as £70,000, the council will have to pay Trees Not Cars’ £35,000 legal fees. MCC said it was still collating costs and it would be “inappropriate” to confirm how much of taxpayers money it had spent on the action.
Julia Kovaliova, another lead organiser from Trees Not Cars, who has two sons at New Islington free school, said: “I am delighted by the judge’s decision and will be able to sleep easier at night knowing my son who has asthma won’t be exposed to even greater levels of air pollution. Our victory must be a wake-up call for the council, who can’t continue to prioritise car parks and offices over clean air and green space.”
Following the judgment on Friday, the council said it had sought leave to appeal. It said it brought the case because of “the precedent it would set and the potential impact of this decision on future applications if insufficient weight was given to the previous use of sites – in this case as the car park for a retail park”.
A spokesperson said the site would not be used as a car park but that the council hoped to develop the site as part of a “net zero carbon business district, with public space at its heart and as little car use as possible”.
They added: “We do however recognise calls for more green space and the site will integrate with an improved Cotton Field Park, to the immediate north of the site. Work is also well under way to create Mayfield Park, a major new city centre park.”