Welcome to ChicChester – “the greatest mere village in England”

4th November, 2019


Here’s the opinion piece I referenced in my last post, a piece motivated by an article in the Guardian last week which frankly was so unbalanced I’m just grateful that the author writes about architecture rather than practising it.  Enough of that though as I want, as far as possible, to minimise subjectivity and stick to facts.

1.  No affordable housing?  The author, Oliver Wainwright repeats a story published in the Guardian on 6th March, 2018 - referencing 61 schemes approved by Manchester Planning Committee with no affordable housing.  He ignores the “clarification” published by the Guardian on the 22nd March, 2018 which told us that in addition “19 further developments containing affordable housing were given planning permission.” It wouldn’t have taken too much research to find out that the city is aiming for 6,400 genuinely affordable homes by 2025, including a good chunk of social rented housing.

2.  Any investment is good investment?  Go back 4 to 5 years and there were signs of developers (not just in Manchester) looking to build cheap, badly designed buildings with poor space and environmental standards.  The City’s response was the Manchester Residential Quality Guidelines, overseen by a Steering Group chaired by former RIBA President, Stirling Prize Winner and Manchester based architect Stephen Hodder. The guidelines were approved by the Council in December, 2016 and they are, I believe, the most demanding design, space and sustainability standards of any city in the UK and send a very clear message – if you want to build crap, go somewhere else.

3.  Pushing for the maximum height?  Let’s look at Ancoats, and the internationally lauded regeneration of Manchester’s oldest industrial area.  The strategic framework for Ancoats sets a maximum building height of 8 stories, respecting the magnificent restored and brought back to life mill buildings fronting Redhill Street.  Elsewhere in the consultation on the strategic framework for a part of Upper Brook Street approved a few weeks ago, the landowners wanted tall buildings, the Council said ‘no’.

4.  Something you’d see on the outer ring road of a third-tier Chinese City? Mr Wainwright doesn’t identify any third-tier Chinese Cities or tell us how many of their outer ring roads he has navigated but he seems to be suggesting good old British capitalism is good, meeting the forces of international capitalism bad. Couple this with a few other comments in the article, and it could very easily be construed as currently very topical Little Englander jingoism. Just look at who is investing and developing in the city – Urban Splash, Ask, Allied London, Capital and Centric, Renaker, Hermes, Aviva, Legal & General, Manlife, Bruntwood, U & I, Property Alliance Group – the list goes on, predominantly British companies working in the city. So what’s different about Far East Consortium and Peter Lim.  Are British capitalists somehow nicer and cuddlier than those rotten foreigners?  Let’s remember our history. Hallé, Behrens, Siemens, Little Ireland, Little Italy, Chinatown, the Curry Mile.  A diverse city made great by our openness to anybody from anywhere in the world who wanted to do things here.  That’s still Manchester today and we should be proud of it.

5.  Ripping it up?  If 150 years ago Angel Meadows was hell, 30 years ago it wasn’t much better. St Michael’s Flags was a neglected waste land surrounded by largely empty former industrial buildings.  In the intervening years the buildings have been brought back into use, in-fill sites have been filled, a community has grown up and St Michael’s Flags has become a lovely local park.  Now we aim to regenerate all the old, largely contaminated former industrial land stretching from Angel Meadow to Collyhurst. Housing will predominate with an estimated 15,000 new homes.  At the heart of the regeneration will be a linear park stretching all the way from the City Centre to Queen’s Park in Harpurhey.  Maybe Meadowside doesn’t have any “affordable” housing but overall at least 20% of the housing in this Northern Gateway project will be genuinely affordable and the City Council is able to control that, not just through planning, but also through approval of the business plan.

6.  Wool over our eyes?  Apparently developers are somehow fiddling their appraisals to maximise profits and avoid contributing to affordable housing. Unlikely!  The City Council is itself building things in the city, directly responsible for two of the biggest construction projects currently underway. We are still building homes, not just through Manchester Life, but also through Northwards and other partners.  We know exactly how much it costs to build and develop in Manchester!

7.  Luxury flats and housing need. 30 years ago less than 500 people lived in the city centre. Now there are now an estimated 65,000 people living in the wider city centre largely in ‘luxury’ flats. Nobody has been displaced and many of these people have moved from elsewhere in the city, freeing up homes there.  Every developer markets their product as “luxury”.  Of course they do because let’s face it ‘well built and designed but pretty ordinary’ doesn’t quite have the same resonance. That’s what most of them are.  There are, of course, some real luxury apartments but most of what has been built is good quality workers accommodation for the new urbanites who not only want to work in the city centre but also live there.  Who lives there?   There are software engineers, bankers and lawyers but equally there are pensioners (750 over 60’s), teachers, nurses, students, barristers, shop workers, bar staff and an increasing number of families.  As to whether or not it meets housing need, given it’s all full, the answer must be ‘yes’, and where would these 65,000 people live if those flats hadn’t been built?  Are there housing needs this sort of development doesn’t meet?  The answer is equally ‘yes’ , but these housing needs, particularly the pressing need for more social housing for low-income families, will only be met with hundreds of £millions of government subsidy.

8.  Heritage?  New York is a fantastic city, but if we’re talking tall buildings Chicago is really the place to go, so instead of MancHattan how about ChicChester.  Yet take a walk down Cross Street, past the Town Hall down Princess Street and on to Whitworth Street. Craning your neck look at those superb, Victorian mercantile structures and you know you are very much in Manchester.  Do we take Heritage seriously? £320 million on refurbishing the Town Hall says ‘yes’, but let’s look wider.  Earlier this year the Council publishing a survey of listed and heritage buildings in the Northern Quarter of which the vast majority have been restored and brought back into use.  We are currently working on the small number leftover. Even the Shudehill Shard is part of maintaining heritage – it is that height to make the restoration of part of the site (not owned by the Council), the old warehouse on Back Turner Street, economically viable. Nearby and just across the road from the excellent and still relatively new 1 Angel Square, the Co-op’s historic estate is being lovingly restored and brought back into use.

9.  Stating the obvious! Mr Wainwright accuses me of being disingenuous for counterposing high density development on brown field sites as the alternative to strip mining the green belt. The history of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework says otherwise. Councils including Stockport, Trafford and Bolton have been able to reduce demands on their green belt only because Manchester has committed to taking a share of meeting their housing requirements. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if as well as housing, we need schools, places to work, green space and if land supply is constrained, which it is, we need to go up. Twice the height equals twice the number of homes.

10.  Losing our Soul? Post the 2002 Commonwealth Games, the Council commissioned some research to get underneath the character of the city.  The research boiled Manchester’s values down to three key elements – Respect (attitude, edge, enterprise); Live and Let Live (inclusive, welcoming, tolerant); Going Places (ambitions, forward moving) later summed up by Peter Saville as Original : Modern.  So Mr Wainwright’s article does get one thing right, even if only by accident. This is “ the most radical physical transformation of any UK city for some time” because 'This is Manchester and in Manchester we do things differently'.


Unfortunately due to a Jadu technical issue the Leader is currently unable to receive any comments via the Leader's blog therefore if you would like to respond to his article please email the Leader direct at : r.leese@manchester.gov.uk