“The Manchester miracle”: how did a city in decline become the poster child for urban regeneration?

The Piccadilly area of central Manchester in 1887. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

In an April 2015, a poll commissioned by the Manchester Evening News found that 72 per cent of respondents were in favour of Manchester seceding from the United Kingdom.

Like the post-Brexit petition for London independence, perhaps the poll shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But it does illustrate the independent Mancunian spirit – a spirit that’s also seen its civic leaders reshaping the city’s political institutions and economic strategies since its post-industrial nadir in the 1980s.

Today, Greater Manchester is moving towards electing its first metro mayor next year. Could it really go beyond that – to independence?

Post-industrial decline

Manchester was the first of western Europe’s industrial boomtowns – but the city underwent a catastrophic process of deindustrialisation following the Second World War. Between 1971 and 1981, Manchester lost almost 50,000 full-time jobs and 17.5 per cent of its population.

Whole areas were described as “emptied”, characterised by social exclusion, crime and deteriorating living conditions: landscapes soundtracked by Joy Division. The world’s first industrial city seemed to be in terminal decline by the 1980s. A huge economic disparity subsequently opened up between London and declining industrial cities like Manchester. Per capita GDP in London remains double that of northern English regions.

Manchester's cotton mills in 1936. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

This uneven development was driven by the forces of globalisation, and facilitated by the British state (a fact which helps to explain Manchester’s recent strive for greater autonomy). The disparity between the London and the north opened up dramatically from the late-1970s, when governments ceased trying to spread economic growth more widely among cities.

The most significant policy decision was the so-called “Big Bang” of 1986: the deregulation of London’s financial markets, enabling its emergence as the world’s preeminent financial centre. The proximity of the thriving financial centre to Britain’s existing political centre has encouraged successive governments – whether Conservative or Labour – to further enhance the capital’s dominance.


Manchester’s economic miracle

Manchester’s city leaders have since employed new economic strategies to re-define its role and improve its position in the global market. The turnaround witnessed in recent years has been so successful that it’s sometimes termed the “Manchester miracle”.

To prosper in the competitive global economy, cities need to harness their “monopolies of place” – those distinctive qualities granted by location and local assets that cannot be easily imitated elsewhere.

Improving regional and international connectivity via transport infrastructure upgrades is one economic strategy being employed to exploit Manchester’s position within the northern English conurbation, and at the tip of the European “blue banana”. Specific changes include the Northern Hub, a project to improve the rail connections between Manchester and other cities in the north, and the development of its airport’s international flight connections.

The recent announcement of direct flights from Manchester to Beijing by Chinese President Xi Jinping, underlines the importance of this strategy; it also highlights the increased Chinese investment flowing into Manchester, including £800m invested in the airport expansion, as well as other funding for wider urban regeneration.

Another set of assets contributing to Manchester’s growth are its universities, which draw highly-skilled future employees from across the globe to the city, and produce innovative research which has major economic benefits when commercialised. A 2003 report from Manchester council termed the city’s universities its “knowledge factories”. The term makes clear that they aren’t merely sites for scholarly learning, but play a role in economic growth.

A new form of city government

Precipitated by both the neglect of the London-centric national governments, and by the failure of the socialist city administrations to deal with the economic problems faced by Manchester in the post-war period, the city government changed course in the 1980s.

The Labour council had previously been driven by a redistributive and welfarist agenda, prioritising the protection of jobs in the declining industrial sector – policies in marked contrast to the aggressive privatisation and de-industrialisation pursued by the national Conservative governments of the time.

Manchester’s council dramatically changed direction in 1987, moving towards a governance form labeled “urban entrepreneurialism” by the radical geographer David Harvey: governing in alliance with businesses rather than relying on a centralised bureaucracy, and focusing on increasing the city’s competitiveness within the global market, for example through place marketing strategies. Others have instead labeled it realism: a new approach that acknowledges the failure of past redistributive methods to halt urban decline and social injustice.

In recent years, the Manchester city region has increasingly exercised power independently of the nation state. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), formed in 2011, brought the city-region’s 10 local authorities together into one body. From next year, the GMCA will be led by a directly elected mayor (most likely, Labour big beast Andy Burnham) with control over the policy areas of employment, housing, transport and economic development. The executive board exercising these powers will be assisted by a business leadership council comprising both public and private sector actors.

Another example is the council’s use of the transnational Eurocities network, bypassing the passivity of the nation state to seek international expertise in place-marketing tactics and acquisition of EU funding.

Manchester today. Image: Getty.

The state continues to be influential – not least because it facilitates the increasingly independent exercise of power by Manchester’s city institutions, as shown by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne’s pursuit of the “Northern Powerhouse” agenda.

The state also retains influence over Manchester through its membership of the EU – which, as the examples of the Eurocities network and EU funding suggest, has been a significant asset for the city. The implementation of Brexit could have a profound impact on Manchester’s economic strategy, and yet it is a nationally determined policy: both in terms of the referendum’s electorate, and in terms of who leads the Article 50 negotiations with other member states.

A “post-political” city?

The idea of a “Manchester Miracle” is tempered by the evidence of negative effects on social outcomes and democratic decision-making processes in Manchester.

Academic critics of the entrepreneurial and relatively independent city government and its new approach have pointed to the dangers of its “post-political” nature for two main reasons. The new streamlined, business-friendly institutional forms have been accused of, firstly, eroding democratic principles, and secondly, subordinating social justice to the pursuit of economic growth.

There has been a relatively lukewarm response from local activists to the imminent governance changes so far – yet the new political structures could in fact give greater opportunity for citizens to directly engage with local policy through more powerful, locally accountable representatives.

Like Sadiq Khan’s London, we could be witnessing the metamorphosis of the city of Manchester into a major political space – whether or not it gians its independence.

Fred Paxton is studying for a Masters degree in urban studies at the University of Copenhagen. He tweets as @fredpaxton.

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A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.