Manchester’s development plans – are they good enough?

Manchester's development plans

“The squats we used to party in

Are flats we can’t afford

Kate Tempest

Manchester’s development plans – are they good enough?

People of Manchester, are you aware of the quiet revolution that’s taking place above our heads? Right across the city, as if from nowhere, gigantic steel juggernauts now dominate the skyline. 

Whilst some believe these cranes, and the skyscrapers they will become, are symbols of a brighter horizon, could there be a darker side to their annexation of the skies? An appropriation that has, on reflection, been alarmingly silent in its nature?

It feels like some questions need to be asked. 

What’s led to the creation of these new developments?

Manchester’s city centre, until recently, has never been particularly inhabited. However, the economic boom of the 90s saw young professionals, attracted by the promise of employment, begin living and working within the city centre.

Manchester city living demographics

This graph shows that between 2001 and 2011 an additional 20,000 people began living in Manchester city centre

Since then growth has never really stopped and so, owing to Manchester’s lack of city-living infrastructure, more accommodation and office space is needed.

To accommodate demand, the council, due to a lack of government funding, are almost entirely reliant on the private sector in order to meet demand.

What do the private sector want?

In short, build-to-rent properties.

Reason being, they hold enormous levels of profitability in the current market.

In fact, 50% of all new developments will be build-to rent apartments.

This is because, in spite of a 13.5% increase in rent prices since 2014, positive growth in rental profit margins are still expected.

The aim of the property developers, according to Head of Manchester Residential at JLL, Stephen Hogg, is to capitalise on the “particularly strong returns achievable in Manchester as rent values set to grow”. The plan is to build “high quality rental accommodation that cater to graduates and young professionals.”

The problem with the build-to-rent revolution

Virtually all of the new developments will be priced well above what most people can afford. Although Manchester supposedly prides itself on its cultural diversity, it seems new developments will be exclusively available to those who can afford rents of £1000+ per month.

To add insult to injury, developers hope for even greater price rises down the line. Deputy Fund Manager for Hermes Real Estate Investment Management, Matthew Howard, recently told a Property Week seminar that he hopes to see the city’s market develop further as ‘occupiers become more sophisticated’.

The social issue

What we are witnessing is the average Mancunian being priced out of the city centre, and what’s more, barely a word has been said in protest.

There’s no talk of the need for amenity spaces or fairly priced municipal housing akin to the wonderful Victoria Square, built in 1894 to house the workers of Ancoats.

Victoria Square

Instead we’re seeing a private sector that has been allowed to create one overpriced, gated-off microcosm-community after another. Huge sky ghettos that are a physical representation of the growing gaps being purposefully built into our society.

As Mr Turnbull, a lecturer in Politics and Public Policy at The University of Manchester states “The city has its 15 year economic strategic plan. But they don’t have a plan for people,”

Who benefits from this economic strategy?

Not lovers of design. In order to maximise profits, all the new additions to the city’s skyline are what architect Robert Stephenson describes as being “polite and well-managed”.

It seems Manchester is squandering this rare opportunity to create a captivating skyline in favour of constructing convenient, soulless blocks that stimulate little thought or interest.

For a city that insists it ‘does things differently’, is this good enough?  Or, instead, are we happy to go down the London/NYC route that leads to increased homelessness and unaffordable housing?  

Where is the forward-thinking spirit that commissioned Sir Owen Williams’ Daily Express building in 1939, Manchester’s youngest Grade II listed building? Located on Great Ancoats Street, this tribute to modernism, looks as timelessly futuristic today as it did upon construction. A lesson in legacy-making that has simply been lost on those responsible today.

The Daily Express Building

What are we losing?

Local heritage.

Buildings of immense architectural wonder such as London Road Fire Station, ironically, a testimony to civic pride, is set to make way for a hotel.

London Road Fire Station

It also seems inevitable that the investment group headed by Gary Neville will succeed in demolishing The Ralph Abercromby, a pub that not only existed but also housed the wounded during the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

And what for? For the uninspiring dent to the skyline pictured below.

Gary Neville's proposed buildings

The problem is not a yearning to stand in the way of progress, but instead to ensure that it is progress and social change that we are receiving – not just profits for foreign investors.

The current state of discussion

A major issue is how little say the public currently has in shaping the city. It’s possible that the reason this revolution has been so quiet is that open dialogue would expose the blatant profiteering that is taking place and might result in popular backlash.

Presently, if a building is issued a compulsory purchase order or a new high rise is proposed, chances are there has been little in the way of public discourse as to what should be done with the space.

As Labour Councillor Beth Knowles states “scrutiny committees are the only real public forum and you’re scrutinising things that have already been decided”.

To add insult to injury, if a person currently wanted to object to a development proposal, the only method presently available is the council’s planning portal – a backchannel so outdated you have to wonder whether it is through purposefully inadequate design.

What can be done?

For positive change to happen, two things need to happen.

  1. Increased awareness
  2. More dialogue between the public and the council regarding development plans

To increase awareness – share articles, discuss the issues and keep an open eye to future development.

To improve dialogue – a more complex issue, this is because the council need to do more to open a public forum as to what should be done with our land.

The problem is, they would rather this didn’t occur, as such it is our responsibility to push the council.

A small step would be to tweet @ManCityCouncil asking them to make the planning portal fit for purpose.

An even greater step would be for the public to be asked what things they would like to be included in the development of our city.

This will only occur if there is a public demand for involvement which in turn relates back to increased awareness.

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