The pursuit of growth in Manchester

The brand spanking new skyscrapers at Deansgate Square are enormous. You can’t miss them; walking through Manchester it feels like all roads lead to these four glass towers. If you look down Mosley Street or Oldham Street, they’re looming at the end.

Inside, it feels like you’re in a hotel lobby – lots of glass, high ceilings and an almighty array of crass metallic panels. The concierge gives me a strange look. There are lots of buttons in the lift.

Portrait photo of Deansgate Sqaure
Deansgate Square | Photo: Tom Taylor

The flats are clean and new, but not exactly what I would call luxury. I guess you’re paying for the view: from the flat you can see across the city, you can see the Peak District and the Pennines on the horizon. And yet, I find it impossible to think of these towers, so cold and removed, as relating in any way to ‘Manchester’.

But this observation, I realise, is outdated. Development in Manchester is happening at breakneck speed: there were 72 construction sites in the city at the end of 2020, 24 of which started that year. Development is now part and parcel of Manchester: a recent report by the Universities of Manchester and Sheffield, along with Greater Manchester Housing Action, highlighted some disturbing truths about the public land deals that have enabled it.

Deansgate Square under construction
Deansgate Square under construction | Photo: Tom Taylor

The report estimates that in some instances Manchester City Council could be paying nine times more for land in places like Ancoats than it has received from such areas in revenue. According to the report, the Council has leased city centre land to developers for hundreds of years for free, or for a single pound coin – a fact that would be laughable if it wasn’t so unsettling.

Take Oxygen Tower, for example. The development is on Store Street and markets itself as “luxury apartments and townhouses” with “exclusive five-star leisure facilities” and has no affordable or social housing provision. It’s located in the ‘New Central Manchester Neighbourhood’ – wherever that is.

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The report states that Manchester City Council leased the land for 960 years to Store Street Developments (a company registered at the address of the Property Alliance Group) for a total of £1.

Defending the Oxygen deal, Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council said: “The Council acquires the land from the developer for a nominal sum and then leases it back for the same amount, to remove technical legal obstacles which could discourage development […] far from selling the land for next to nothing, the City Council acquired the freehold for next to nothing.”

In his statement, Leese makes it clear that the Council believes that using land in this way supports what they call “the wider vision for Manchester’s ongoing growth and “regeneration.” At this stage you have to wonder who exactly all this ongoing “growth” and “regeneration” is for.

Blue sky with crane in distance
Photo: Joe Ronan

As Ethan Green puts it: “The city centre has cemented itself as a playground for property developers and investors”. Ethan is 23. He lives in Ancoats and works in retail. He has also been a member of ACORN, the mass-membership community union for renters for the last 18 months.

“Ordinary people are being priced out of their city centre more year on year and we have less of a voice regarding the changes we would like to see in our communities,” Ethan says.

It’s clear that ordinary people do not have any say over how land is used in our city

In response to the findings of the report, ACORN, Greater Manchester Housing Action and various other institutions, including Partisan Collective, Manchester Green Party and Manchester Momentum, signed an open letter demanding that Mayor Andy Burnham establish a Greater Manchester Land Commission to investigate the use of public land in the city.

“It’s clear that ordinary people do not have any say over how land is used in our city and that’s why we’ve put our name to the letter,” Ethan says. He mentions Salford and the flats proliferating there: “sprawling out into areas that used to house working-class communities.”

View down cobbled street in Manchester
Photo: Joe Ronan

I’ve been walking down the Ship Canal a lot recently, out of the city centre and south towards Salford and Old Trafford, and on that route down the canal you soon find that you can only walk so far: so many building sites line the waterside that the path has been entirely blocked off.

This is what Manchester is now. In light of the GMHA report – and the Council’s response – it seems foolish to see the towers at Deansgate Square as an exception, an aberration, somehow at odds with the rest of the city. In one sense, of course, they are at odds with the city – they’re the tallest buildings around, they dominate the skyline, they’re on a scale incomparable to anything bar the Hilton. 

This is what Manchester is now

But they’re also absolutely emblematic of all the other changes highlighted by Ethan. They’re the product of policy pursued by Manchester City Council. The fact is, Manchester is a place where a small coterie of extraordinarily wealthy people – the people who are making these property deals – are making inordinate amounts of money from rent and land.  

Sometimes, seeing all the money being pumped into the city – and homeless people sleeping on the streets – whilst multi-million-pound buildings stand empty, it makes me feel like we’re living in some parody of pre-revolutionary France.  

I walk down Great Ancoats Street. On my left is an ‘English Market Diner’ called Street Urchin, which is selling Hake Fillet for £17.50 a pop from behind a glass façade whilst, directly opposite, a homeless man staggers between moving cars asking for change. Street Urchin. Tasteless doesn’t feel like strong enough a word.

“It’s important to recognise that most of the things that ACORN is fighting against are not new,” Ethan says. It’s too easy to slip into the comforting lie that everything used to be great – there was plenty of inequality and property development going on in the 90s and the 2000s, too.  

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But that is not to say that things haven’t changed in Manchester, that the city is not different now. We also shouldn’t let ourselves forget that whilst the things ACORN is fighting against are not new, affordable public housing isn’t a pipe dream. There was a period, immediately after the war, when affordable public housing was accepted as a priority by both the Tories and Labour. It is not an impossible demand.  

Nevertheless, there are barriers in place to stop it from being realised. As Ethan says: “The balance of power in our society is startlingly unequal.” This is something that is true of Manchester just as it is true of pretty much everywhere else. And not something to lose sight of when we’re discussing the rather grand topic of ‘what Manchester is’. 

Contrasting new and old in Manchester
Photo: Tom Taylor

Whatever Manchester is, you can be sure the city will change. What form that change takes will be a product of politics, and pressure groups, and organising, and probably a little bit of chance too, but Manchester will not always be like Manchester is now.

You can see that fact writ large everywhere – in the endless array of half-finished buildings. Change is happening; I hesitate to call it ‘growth’. Walking through the city, between its twin poles of privilege and deprivation, past its building sites, its towers and its homeless people, I find myself wanting a different type of change, change that doesn’t look like this.

Joe has also written about Manchester’s colonial roots through his walks around Dunham Massey and the city’s canals.