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.

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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”