In February, consultants Deloitte named Manchester one of Europe’s fastest-growing cities. Much of that growth is centred around the centre, where in the year 2000, four years after an IRA bomb blew up much of the downtown shopping district, just 10,000 people lived.
By 2016, there were 50,000 residents, split between warehouse conversions and shiny new builds. Come 2024, about 80,000 people are expected to have made their home at the heart of the onetime Cottonopolis. Many will live in huge and exclusive new skyscrapers, including on a former BBC site on Oxford Road and in the old Granada Studios, where Coronation Street was filmed until 2013.
Manchester’s rapid expansion can be credited to the council’s friendly relationship with the big developers it has been aggressively wooing over the past few years. Whereas some cities, like Cardiff and Newcastle, are strict with developers who want to put up big apartment blocks without including any affordable provision, Manchester has taken a more relaxed view.
Of the 61 big residential developments granted planning permission by Manchester city council in 2016 and 2017, not one of the 14,667 planned flats or houses met the government’s definition of affordable, being neither for social rent nor offered at 80% of the market rate.
Just 65 of the total will be shared-ownership properties, where the owner buys a proportion of the property and pays rent on the remainder, typically to a local authority or housing association. None are central: 30 are in Gorton, where the Channel 4 series Shameless was set; 27 will be in Openshaw, which is in the most deprived ward in Manchester and in the 1% most deprived in the whole of England; and eight in Moss Side, which, though vastly improved since its “Gunchester” days, still has its issues.
Meanwhile, the city itself is building almost 700 properties set to be rented at “market rates” in a partnership with the Abu Dhabi United Group, formed after a group of Abu Dhabi investors bought Manchester City football club in 2008.
Some of the developments offer the trappings of a five-star hotel. In June 2016 developer Renaker got planning permission for a huge new development on Owen Street, just off a key southern approach road into the city centre. Construction is well under way of what they are now calling Deansgate Square, comprising four residential towers containing 1,508 apartments with use of a 25m swimming pool, tennis court, 1,900 sq ft gym and roof terrace. The tallest skyscraper will be 64 storeys high, dwarfing the 47-storey Beetham Tower, which has held the title of Manchester’s tallest building since its completion in 2006.
A confidential viability appraisal successfully argued that the inclusion of affordable housing within the scheme would “prejudice the achievement of other important planning and regeneration objectives, and would undermine a significant development proposal critical to economic growth within the city”.
Not all councillors on the planning committee were happy about it. Meeting minutes show some were “very disappointed that a scheme of this scale should have no provision for affordable housing”. According to Manchester city council’s own planning rules, any development of 16 or more units or on a site larger than 0.3 hectares should include 20% affordable provision.
The committee also raised concerns that “again affordable housing was not being proposed in a very large development due to an apparent viability assessment of the scheme overall and expressed scepticism that a development of this scale would not be feasible with any provision for affordable housing”.
Developers routinely argue that being forced to include affordable housing would make their projects unviable, and sometimes pay a fee instead. They say they are carrying huge risk investing in the city and that it is impossible to meet the “affordable” criteria in quality new builds.
Adam Higgins, chief of Capital & Centric – which in the last two years received planning permission to create 681 flats in two old mills and part of Manchester Metropolitan University’s 1960s campus – said his developments would not happen if they had to sell the apartments at prices deemed affordable to the average Mancunian.
The council’s focus is about increasing quality at the same time as increasing supply, said Higgins: “Ultimately as a private sector developer the only way you can build it cheaper is to build poorer quality and what everybody is paranoid about doing, including the council, all credit to them, is to start repeating the mistakes of the 1960s. Look at Grenfell Tower and places like that.”
Capital & Centric recently agreed to pay an undisclosed fee to the council’s affordability fund in return for not including any “affordable” flats in Talbot Mill, a cotton mill it is developing in the city centre. “The tide is turning a little bit,” he said. “Values and viability are such now that people are starting to be able to say yes, there is a [profit] margin there and we can afford to pay it.”
In 2017 Manchester city council negotiated £1.5m in developer fees, which it says will be used to build more affordable homes. But these will not be in the city centre. They will be in cheaper areas of north Manchester, Clayton and Beswick in the east and Wythenshawe in the south.
Bernard Priest, deputy leader of Manchester city council, said it made sense to build affordable homes outside the city centre, where land is cheaper. “It should be remembered that the geography of Manchester is such that a significant proportion of the city is within 15-20 minutes travel time of the city centre so people don’t necessarily need to live in the city centre to have easy and convenient access to its amenities,” he said.
Were Manchester to follow the example of Leeds and insist on a percentage of affordable homes in each development, even just 5%, developers may look elsewhere, said Higgins: “Some projects won’t happen and I think inevitably the quality goes down. I would say that the quality of residential projects in Manchester is higher than most other cities in the UK.”
Manchester city council said that 41% of the homes (old and new) sold in Manchester in 2016/17 were affordable, by its own definition, in that the mortgage payments were affordable to households with the average income of £27,000.