To sustain its urban renaissance, Manchester must make tough choices on property

The Manchester skyline. Image: Michael Colvin/Flickr/creative commons.

The announcement from Manchester earlier this year that the city council would grant approval to St Michael’s development, a 30 storey tall building in the heart of the city, has sparked controversy across the city.

Those in favour of the project emphasise the positive economic impact of the building, which will include flats, grade A offices, retail space and a hotel, in an area of the city that the council has long been keen to regenerate. Those against it are particularly concerned about the location and aesthetics of the new tower block, especially due to its proximity to historic Victorian buildings.

This story reflects wider concerns about the redevelopment of the city centre, for example about the lack of affordable homesheritage buildings at risk of being lost, and distinctive areas such as the Northern Quarter losing their spirit.

It’s true that Manchester city centre is undergoing massive economic and social changes. As the Centre for Cities' recent City Space Race report shows, between 1998 and 2015 the number of jobs located in the city centre increased by 84 per cent; and the number of residents grew by a whopping 149 per cent between 2002 and 2015.

But notwithstanding the concerns of people who aren’t comfortable with the transformation of the city centre, these changes show how much Manchester city centre has improved as a place to live and a place to work. In terms of employment and businesses, it has been particularly attractive to knowledge-intensive activities, which accounted for half of the new jobs created in the city centre between 1998 and 2015 and represented 44 per cent of all city centre jobs in 2015. This economic success, in turn, has made the city centre a more attractive place to live, with young professionals accounting for a large part of the overall increase in city centre population.


To date, the city centre has been able to accommodate both types of growth because of the amount of land available. But the recent controversies suggest that land availability may now be becoming a restriction. And this poses an interesting challenge for the city’s planners, who need to strike the right balance between commercial and residential use.

Just as Manchester’s urban renaissance has been fuelled by the growth of knowledge-intensive jobs in its city centre, so much of its future success is likely to hang on the continued ability for the city centre to support their growth in the future. This will mean that the ongoing availability of appropriate commercial space will be very important.

Yet national planning policies tend to favour the development of residential space over commercial, as shown in our report City Space Race. Permitted development rights (PDR) are a good example of this. Under this policy, converting office blocks into residential units does not require a planning permission, meaning that local authorities have less power to balance building uses.

Manchester has obtained an exemption on PDR over parts of its city centre, which has helped to protect its office stock. But as shown on the map below, many conversions under PDR have happened – or are currently underway – at the fringes of the protected area, bringing a total of 718 new residential units, which suggests that competition for space is building up.

Source: Manchester city council.

This policy is likely to result in an ad hoc approach to city centre development. The task for planners will be to balance and manage the competing needs of employment space, residential space, heritage and cultural amenities, which PDR makes more difficult.

The city centre cannot absorb all the growing demand; given the importance to the city’s economy of supporting businesses to thrive in the city centre, planners will need to make adequate space available for residential property in other areas of the city.

So while land pressure is not currently as acute in Manchester city centre as it can be elsewhere in the country, current economic changes suggest that this is likely to soon become a significant issue. This will require action today to allow the city centre to continue to play a central role in the city’s growing economy tomorrow.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Why aren’t working class people living in cities also “left behind”?

The metropolitan elite. Image: Getty.

If you have hammer, everything’s a nail. The hammer for much of Britain’s political class and commentators is Brexit, which is meant to explain everything from social mobility to the north-south divide to attitudes to immigration to public transport investment.

However, a huge amount is lost in this sort of analysis. One particular casualty is our understanding of working-class communities. This is particularly striking in the presentation of London as being a Remain stronghold inhabited by metropolitan elites.

In fact, the reality is that working class communities, especially in cities, have been just as “left behind” as those elsewhere in the UK. Even 72 people dying in the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a preventable fire which happened within sight of Parliament, hasn’t dislodged the dominant narrative of London as a leafy cosmopolitan elite bubble.

The lazy and reductive “London is cosmopolitan elite” narrative extends well beyond the far right. This shorthand gathers into one category people who have a second home in Provence, and outsourced gig economy workers who live in Hackney. By flattening such diversity into catch-all terms, we erase the existence of working class Londoners, ethnic minorities and migrants.

The facts are stark – London has some of the highest poverty, highest pollution, and largest working class community in all of the UK. Seven of the top 11 local authorities in terms of child poverty are in London, while the capital records the highest level of air pollution in the country.

Yet the statistics are airily dismissed because a majority London residents voted Remain in the EU referendum – and remainers, of course, are all elite, especially if they live in London. By such magic thinking, three in four black people in Britain become elite because they voted to remain in the EU, a point that should perhaps give pause to even the doughtiest proponent of the everything-is-Brexit theory.

Despite our national obsession about class, Britain already had an impoverished understanding and narrative on the topic even before Brexit. Why aren’t the ethnic minority and migrant people who live in tower blocks and experience disproportionate levels of child poverty (rising to 59 per cent for Bangladeshi children) viewed as working class? Why aren’t those living in cities, or who die in preventable fires also “left behind”?

One answer is it doesn’t suit a narrative that wants to make everything about Brexit, and that only addresses class when the context is Brexit. Another is that recognising that many ethnic minorities are also working-class is not helpful when your aim is to prosecute a different argument: that Britain needs “tougher” immigration policies.

At its most extreme, this argument ties into the longstanding narrative that only white people can be British or live in Britain. Of course, this is a narrative that divides working class communities and blames ethnic minorities and migrants for all of society’s ills.

It also has a direct policy effect. It is easier to justify cuts to public services if expenditure on those services is associated with “undeserving scroungers” who don’t really count as fellow citizens.

Recent research published by the Runnymede Trust and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies shows the wider effects of this narrative. The report’s title “We Are Ghosts” are the words of Henry, a working-class Londoner in his ‘60s living in Southwark and capture a wider sense of precariousness, neglect and lack of voice in the face of London’s ongoing gentrification.

Henry happens to be white – but his experience of injustice and prejudice is shared by people of colour interviewed for the same research. Where people engaged with public services, especially housing, policing and social care, they felt treated with indignity and indifference.

Decades of blaming the poor and migrant has led to a punitive culture within our public services which affects all working-class people, white or otherwise, as they see their voices and needs  being routinely ignored.

This is one reason why we need more locally devolved services: to strengthen working class, BME and migrant voices. Terms like “co-production” may sound thinktanky, but the aim is a democratic one: to ensure that those most affected by a service – such as housing services – or decision actually have a say in how that service is delivered.

Devolution isn’t just about putting more power in local rather than national government; it’s also about devolving power more directly to people, through community organisations and charities that are often better placed to represent and understand local needs and experiences.

The British working class has been multi-ethnic for centuries. Working class communities aren’t the same everywhere but they do experience the shared conditions of lack of resources, and lack of voice or power.

By always foregrounding Brexit when we talk about class, we not only miss these shared conditions among working class people across the UK, but deflect from the solutions that might actually address them.

If we’re serious about actually tackling race and class inequalities and prejudice, we need to put down the Brexit – or any other – hammer. Instead we need to change how we think and talk about race and class, invest more in the safety net, and redesign public services to provide those using them with greater dignity, voice and power.

Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust