Residents are fighting back against gentrification in Manchester’s Northern Quarter

A building in Thomas Street, being demolished. Image: Andrea Sandor.

As the claw sunk its teeth into the Victorian warehouse, raining down century-old hand laid brick, the spirit of residents hardened. Soon after, huddled in the back room of Gulliver’s Pub, the Northern Quarter Forum formally adopted a constitution and elected officers. The city council was failing them, and there was no other option but to organise. This was war.

The Northern Quarter is lauded in travel guides and city break round-ups as Manchester’s quirky, indie heartland, replete with independents, hip bars, and evocative street art. What these articles won’t tell you, but residents will, is that the streets are dirty, derelict buildings are crumbling, and upper floors of others are vacant. The homeless bed down for the night, stag and hen parties traipse through, and drunks pass out on the street leaking trails of urine.

So when developer Salboy, owned by billionaire bookie Fred Done, announced at a public consultation about luxury flats that one of the Victorian warehouses on the Soap Street site was to be demolished under emergency orders the next day, residents rallied. It wasn’t the first building to be torn down at a moment’s notice, and, although they didn’t know it yet, a few weeks later an eighteenth century weaver’s cottage would also be dust.

The Northern Quarter in context. Image: Google.

Unease about gentrification had been growing for several months. Arts organisations and long-time independents were forced out when their rents were put up 30-40 per cent overnight. Many of those who remain are hospitality businesses that own multiple seemingly independent establishments, and those moving in have significant capital behind them: in other words, if you think it’s an independent, it’s probably not.

The Northern Quarter has become a hotspot for short-term lets, with visitors throwing all night parties, failing to follow waste management rules, and even, say some, harassing residents in their own buildings. Property management companies are now renting flats as short-term lets rather than to long-term residents, and individuals are building up property portfolios of their own. At the moment, it’s easier to find a let on Airbnb (171 listings) than it is a long-term rent on Rightmove (143 listings).

As in other cities, there is both a concern that short-term lets are pushing up house prices, and long term questions about what sort of economy short-term lets stimulate: night clubs, not hardware stores. While city centre MP Lucy Powell raised the issue with Home Secretary Sajid Javid, he said that London’s 90-day per year restriction will not be introduced elsewhere.

Now developers have moved into the Northern Quarter, touting “luxury” flats. Salboy has three projects in the works – one under construction and two, including Soap Street, seeking planning permission. When, at one consultation, I asked director Simon Ismail to whom these “luxury” flats would be marketed, he answered candidly: not to locals. The only way to make the numbers work – to maximise profit – is to sell at a higher price point to overseas investors.

So is the Northern Quarter a cultural hub or a party district? Is it a cherished conservation area for a diverse mix of residents to call home, or a free-market playground for international capital to make a fast buck?

Manchester City Council has let the area develop “organically,” taking a developer-friendly approach. Despite having powers to issue notices requiring owners of decaying buildings to conduct repairs, some buildings have sat derelict for decades.

RIP. Image: Andrea Sandor.

When I meet with Sir Richard Leese, I ask the leader of the City Council what measures were taken to save the recently demolished buildings. He tells me both were under development, as though the expectation was they were being refurbished. And yet the original Soap Street proposal didn’t propose retaining the Victorian warehouses, and the Thomas Street plans hadn’t yet been submitted.

While Leese cites the number of refurbished buildings in the area and denies the council has allowed buildings to crumble so owners can develop them into profitable luxury flats and hotels, it’s easy to understand why many residents assume this is the case. Even Leese reminds me it can be more profitable to knock down and build new.

It seems what’s happening in the Northern Quarter and elsewhere in Manchester is a version of what has been referred to as “state-led hyper gentrification”: a process in which gentrification is “not just allowed, but abetted by government policies”.

So how did we get here?

Let’s step back a few decades to the 1980s. Manchester, having fallen from its industrial heyday into a depressed backwater, was in a dire state. Between 1951 and 1981, jobs in the city declined by 22 per cent and Manchester residents cleared out of the slummy city centre for the greener fringes. Following deregulation of London’s financial sector in 1986, Manchester’s Labour-run city xouncil switched gears in the 1990’s from a welfare agenda to a market-led approach to attract new investment.

Around this time, artists and architects started moving into the derelict Northern Quarter due to cheap rents, slowly transforming it into a bohemian mecca. Some later formed the Northern Quarter Association, and protected the area’s historic architecture by getting a number of buildings listed.


The Council’s market-led approach appeared to pay off, as Manchester was dubbed the poster child of urban renewal. And there is much to admire. Manchester’s City Centre population grew 149 per cent between 2002-15; jobs increased by 84 per cent between 1998 and 2015. But now the market-driven approach is running away from them: on some estimates, Manchester is growing 15 times faster than it can build housing.

Numerous news stories have profiled Manchester’s housing crisis, particularly the lack of affordable housing. Academic Jonathan Silver, in his report From Homes to Assets, argues this crisis is “not just an outcome of unjust austerity. It has also come about through the relatively recent emergence of housing in Greater Manchester as an investment opportunity for financial actors, from within the UK and increasingly internationally.”

The implications of this shift to financialised housing, Silver argues, “can be seen in the demolition of our built environment heritage, the growing pressures on neighbourhoods such as the Northern Quarter and perhaps most worryingly the lack of balanced communities as the central areas become ghettos for the well-off.”

Here in the Northern Quarter, those pressures are evident. The area is buzzing but also seedy; heroin addicts continue to shoot up in broad daylight. This is the neighbourhood the market made.

Since the Council won’t address this, residents are stepping up to the plate. They’ve forced Salboy to return to their designs; the development firm now propose retaining the remaining warehouse on site. Galvanised, the group are determined to do all they can to save and foster their much loved neighbourhood.

The Labour city council has been in power for over thirty years and faces no meaningful opposition. It’s in the strongest possible position to take an active role and ensure its protecting and fostering sustainable neighbourhoods. And yet, despite the wake-up call of Brexit and the growing opposition to neoliberalism, old habits are dying hard.

The Northern Quarter is a case-study in what happens to a historic area when market logic goes to town. What is loved about the Northern Quarter is not due to the market or the Council but to its residents. And once again, they’re fighting back.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.