| "I'd like to explain our position" says Mike Butterworth, Peel Holdings' Property Director "and then you can consider to what extent you are prepared to dance with the devil."
Peel Holdings is certainly one beast of a company. With an estimated £6billion worth of assets, it's got massive interests in Salford and beyond, which include owning the Trafford Centre, Media City, Barton Airport, the Ship Canal, a slice of Salford Reds new stadium complex and huge chunks of Salford's green belt which are about to be developed into a racecourse/hotel complex and a freight terminal.
Peel is going to extraordinary lengths to protect those interests in the run up to the forthcoming local elections, trying to influence local media coverage and, in Butterworth's words, "picking a fight" with elected councillors to stop a policy which might affect its obscene profits.
The policy is congestion charging - which aims to make motorists pay for having their cars on the road at certain times of day, matched with major improvements to public transport - but the principles go much deeper than that.
Whether anyone's for or against the congestion charge isn't at stake here. This is about a huge company using its power and money to put its vested interests at the forefront of a local election, rather than issues that might be more directly important to the community, such as housing, education or…let's think… the protection of Salford's precious green belt.
Mike Butterworth, and his sidekick, Gordon McKinnon, Peel's Director of Operations, have been holding meetings with local political parties that are standing candidates in opposition to the Labour Party, offering to help unseat councillors who are in favour of the congestion charge.
"The forthcoming elections are a big opportunity" Butterworth said at one recent meeting "What can we do to help you guys?"
Butterworth explained just why Peel is so against congestion charging, which boiled down to protecting its real estate interests at Media City…"we don't want to see anything done that will slow it down, hamper it or make it less attractive"…and the possibility of companies around the Trafford Centre having to increase wages to their workers…"I can't say that a lot of them are particularly well paid and people won't be able to afford this charge, so it will affect our ability to draw people in to working here…"
Butterworth put to the meeting a number of ways in which the parties could "dance with the devil". First he mentioned `colluding' with a local newspaper to do a survey asking councillors who are due for election if they were in favour of the charge or not…then he offered the services of political lobbyists and a PR firm to do the survey. Finally he specifically targeted Roger Jones, the Labour councillor for Irlam and chairman of the GMPTE, which is attempting to bring in the charge.
"There is another way of partly skinning the same cat in that Roger Jones is up for re-election - he's bricking it over it, he's rattled" Butterworth said "He has a majority of 200 or something like that, it's nothing. It's almost inconceivable that with a bit of the right kind of publicity he can't be turfed out*…"
Butterworth then revealed details of a telephone survey of 300 people, paid for by Peel and done through market research firm, Aspect, which showed 60% of people who voted for Jones at the last election won't vote for him again if he introduces the congestion charge.
"He knows we've done the survey and is very upset about it, and I've had the chief exec of Salford Council asking what we're up to but at some point we're going to release this information" he added, asking "What's your relationship like with the Salford Advertiser?"
"My impression of the Salford Advertiser is that they didn't particularly carry any great weight of support for Roger Jones" he continued "But if at some point we worked it out between us and we release this information about the survey, and that was before or after - depending on the tactics - some sort of release by you guys saying `This is wrong, and Roger Jones is wrong'…You guys could have so much fun…"
Whether anything was actually put into practice will be seen in the run up to the local election in May. But this does reveal how big business tries to influence and sway the media and political agenda towards its own interests.
"I think it's an abuse of democracy" said Salford Council Leader, John Merry, when we revealed details of Peel's plan "From the point of view of trying to buy an election…the only way it would work is if you think that the people of Salford are going to vote on something solely on the basis of congestion charging…Now I happen to think the people of Salford are more intelligent than that…"
Meanwhile, Peel aren't the only ones trying to interfere with the media agenda. At a recent Salford Council offshoot meeting we understand that control of the Salford Advertiser was discussed…
"I think people - not me - were saying that the Advertiser is perceived by sections as being very negative and misleading in some coverage" explained John Merry "People were saying how we need to influence how the Advertiser was portraying Salford…"
Politics, with a capital `P', is a dirty business. Makes you want to have a bath at the thought of it…Meanwhile, Peel continue to be involved in `skinning cats' and `dancing with the devils'.
Being non political, the Salford Star neither endorses nor opposes any candidate at the local election in May. We do, however, urge everyone in Salford to vote on issues that matter the most.
Graphic by Jamie Reid