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.