How residential developers are quietening culture

In November 2021, Northern Quarter bar Night & Day shared a post on their social media platforms concerning a Noise Abatement Notice that had been served by Manchester City Council. The Notice was the result of a new resident who had moved to the area during lockdown and filed a complaint, not the first the famed indie venue has been up against.

While bands and fans quickly took to social media to pour out support, the news came as little surprise to many. Recent decades have seen post-industrial places like Manchester ‘reurbanise’. This has involved the repopulation of urban areas through intense development, the replacement or revival of underused land, and economic restructuring to align with contemporary ‘needs’. 

Night & Day | Photo: Tom Taylor

A distinct feature of reurbanisation is residentialisation, which sees previously ‘dilapidated’ sites, or areas hitherto dedicated to other uses – such as cultural spaces – increasingly inhabited by a swelling urban population and, in turn, ‘residentialised’. 

Accelerated by the rise of the city-based service economy, post-industrial places like Manchester and Liverpool have attracted young professionals seeking to live ‘amongst it’. The Night & Day neighbour has maintained that he “loves Manchester” and anticipated a “noisy” neighbourhood, but that the club nights went a “step too far.” 

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As the petition states, the Council have made ill-considered decisions in permitting residential development to materialise across the area: “Flats have been built or existing buildings converted into flats around us with no real thought or consideration to the pre-existing businesses.” 

The intense financialisation of Manchester has come in the form of ‘locally-unaffordable luxury apartments’, which now dominate the city centre. As Isaac Rose, an organiser at Greater Manchester Tenant’s Union, told me: “The form of this growth has been characterised, particularly recently, by the explosion of build-to-rent accommodation and more recently, co-living.”

Ancoats | Photo: Tom Taylor

Moreover, as Rose noted, these unaffordable tenure forms “reflect the increased financialisation of housing in urban centres.” Faced by expensive residential developments, Night & Day and others like it continue to be at risk of closure. 

With heightened residentialisation, particularly ‘luxury’ accommodation, comes higher demand for ‘high-end’ dining and drinking. The Northern Quarter is now consumed by expensive bars and cafes, largely driven by commercial interest. Variety and genuine artistic expression is progressively hard to come by. “Difference is ironed out, and everything feels very predictable,” Rose says. 

Crane in Manchester city centre | Photo: Tom Taylor

This story is not confined to Manchester. It is a trend accelerating across the country. Music-lovers and club-goers might recall the events of 2019 when 24 Kitchen Street, a cherished nightclub situated in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle, faced closure for mirroring reasons. 

In this case, the developer of a new neighbouring block of flats refused to install noise-insulating windows. Through a strong grassroots campaign, the club was salvaged, but this does not necessarily protect it from further threats; as Sarah Doyle – the local Riverside councillor – told me: “Kitchen Street don’t really have the security against developers who want to build these really tall flats.” 

Difference is ironed out, and everything feels predictable

Isaac Rose

The Baltic Triangle became a site of dilapidation during the latter part of the twentieth century, a by-product of the decline in maritime trade and the closure of Liverpool’s southern docks. By the turn of the century there was little certainty regarding the future of the area. 

In the early part of the last decade several independent music ventures moved in. The Triangle, which straddles the city centre periphery, seemed like a fitting spot to engineer a new independent entertainment scene. Alongside this came the establishment of community interest companies, including Baltic Creative CIC and Make, as well as thriving digital and creative industries comprising an ecology of small local businesses. 

The area witnessed an upturn in cultural activity and the likes of 24 Kitchen Street thrived throughout the latter half of the 2010s. Unsurprisingly, this upturn quickly saw local developers move in, seeking new land for city centre residential development. 

Over the past few years, several high-rise blocks have emerged in the north of the Triangle along the Upper Parliament Street corridor. 2,500 residential units are in the pipeline for the coming years, alongside 800 student flats. These residential blocks, often merely a transitional tenure for those awaiting their ascendency up the property ladder, are “chipping away at the fabric of the area,” as Doyle put it. 

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With this in mind, it is unsurprising that Kitchen Street and its musical counterparts across the Baltic are embroiled in a fight to save the scene. Kitchen Street was not the first to face such challenges. Constellations, a multi-use event space previously housed in the Baltic, faced closure in 2019 to ‘make way for residential development’

Liam Kelly, head of Make, told me that this really boils down to ownership. Kitchen Street and Night & Day have freehold ownership – meaning ‘outright’ ownership of a building – over their properties, which may be essential in their future battles against developers. Constellations, rather, were commercial tenants and ended up being “the victims of landlordism in its entirety,” Kelly says.

A view of Deansgate in the rain | Photo: Tom Taylor

Though ownership does not entirely diminish the threats collectively felt by cultural vendors, it certainly holds significance. Across both Liverpool and Manchester, land is increasingly being granted to developers, motivated by the profitable extraction of capital from these city sites; in turn, local authorities are losing access to or ownership over essential public space. With ever-increasing rents, Rose says, “capital squeezes its rental assets for higher profits.” 

Looking at how to reverse the tide and ensure that public ownership does not entirely become a thing of the past will be essential going forward. Moreover, alternative forms of common and democratic ownership are an integral part of a reimagined future. 

Sign in the Northern Quarter | Photo: Tom Taylor

There is little doubt that we are in the midst of a deeply embedded crisis, with both housing and land increasingly subjected to the whims of the market. Whilst this should compel us to welcome increased housing stock in areas like the Baltic or the Northern Quarter, it is highly unlikely that 2-bed flats going for rental rates of £1250-£1500 a month will be of any avail to those on the frontlines of the crisis, particularly the long-standing residents of these cities. 

We have a fight on our hands. It should not be a hard task to safely house the nation whilst also saving and cherishing our cultural assets, such as Night & Day and 24 Kitchen Street. However, the increasing predominance of the market over our homes and gig venues makes it one. In turn, we must find avenues to support one another and build a movement of collective resistance.

Find out how to buy a copy of Lily’s recent pamphlet for Greater Manchester Housing Action here.