The population of city centre Manchester is set to double in the next five years. 105 complexes of flats are planned. Already tower blocks, usually of little architectural merit, are being built on any available land regardless of the effects on the local environment. Where the land is not free, historic buildings are often demolished or left to rot until they become impossible to save.
Until the 1990s, few people lived in the city centre. Now it is becoming “Manc-hattan”.
A number of traditionally working-class areas on the fringes of the city centre are being redeveloped as part of a plan to create a Northern Gateway to the city, and existing residents are being forced to move.
A recent four-part BBC documentary entitled Manctopia: Billion pound property boom, followed events in Manchester for a year, focusing on a range of people affected by or involved in the changes to the city. The programmes made it clear that the costs and benefits were very unequally distributed, with most benefits to the better-off, and that the changes would not provide the solution to the city’s serious housing crisis. There are nearly 100,000 people on the housing waiting list and 5,000 homeless people across Greater Manchester, some of whom were featured in the first episode.
Social engineering accompanies the remaking of the city. One graphic example is the charity Lifeshare, which provides food and assistance for homeless people. They were forced out – literally locked out – of their premises on the edge of the city centre because the building had been acquired by a developer. They could not find an alternative in the city centre as nobody wanted homeless people on the doorstep of upwardly mobile streets (the Council has for years been trying to move homeless people out of the city centre) and they ended up relocating to an area that homeless people found difficult to access. The charity may now close.
Two people who were prominently involved in the programmes personify the conflicting interests that exist around the changes.
Tim Heatley is a local lad turned property developer who is developing two sites near Piccadilly station. He insists that he wants to create a new community of owner occupiers in his buildings, who will not be as transitory as the renters we see being welcomed into the new West Tower by a representative of the owners Legal and General. Tim is presented sympathetically as different from such corporate developers, but he can still complain that “there’s no profit in affordable”, while people will “pay for a community vibe”. (Neither Tim’s development nor the West Tower provide any so-called affordable housing.)
Anne Worthington lives in a council house on the Collyhurst estate about a mile north of the city centre. She’s lived there since the estate was built in the early 70s and is now worried because she has been told her house might be demolished in order to build new homes as part of the Northern Gateway project.
She does not object to new developments as such but does not want to leave her low rise house with its meticulously tended garden and her local community. She is unable to find any definite information about what is going to happen. The programme follows her and her friend Donna as they anxiously try to learn what their future is. In the end, we learn that a decision has been postponed for another three to five years until the second phase of the project. In the meantime she has noticed that the maintenance of the area is being neglected.
The contrasts between Tim and Anne, between the millionaire looking for a penthouse flat and the single mother made homeless, all point to the question of who benefits from the redevelopment of Manchester. The Guardian revealed two years ago that none of the developments then underway included any affordable or social housing. The council evidently wants to avoid anything that may deter private capital investment, so that the inhabitants of the new tower blocks will be people who are at least capable of paying a high rent or mortgage.
Yet the human interest documentary format of Manctopia means that it did not investigate the background in any depth. There is no explanation of why there has been a boom in property development over the last five years. It appears just as a fact that everyone has to come to terms with and accept.
There is a void where Manchester Council might have been – perhaps they refused to take part – so there is no opportunity to challenge their motivation or methods. Just as in the broader political arena, there is no accountability.
Labour’s massive majority on the council does not, with few exceptions, challenge the right wing leadership. The mechanisms for the party rank-and-file to intervene have long withered away, and most decisions pass the planning committee with little challenge from outside. The council leadership is basically free to pursue its own agenda, which sees the solution to government cuts, not in opposing them, but rather in a competitive bid for private money.
Manctopia did not examine the political mechanisms behind the boom. The more left-wing Mayor of Salford is seen accepting public pressure to reject Tim’s plan to build 60 houses in a public park and points out that limited funds force his council to sell land and cooperate with private developers. But, apart from a few passing references to the Far East Consortium as the funders of the Northern Gateway, there is no examination of the financial relationships between the council and developers, which has included turning public assets over to private interests. That is just taken as given.
The remaking of Manchester will change its social make up, the physical environment and its traditional “vibe”. In this, the interests of existing working-class inhabitants are largely being ignored in favour of what private developers wants. Manctopia gave us some access to what is going on, but failed to ask enough of the right questions.