‘Hell upon Earth” is how Friedrich Engels described Manchester’s Angel Meadow. This violent, squalid, disease-ridden district was one of the worst slums the revolutionary German thinker encountered on his tour of Victorian England. Everything about the place, he wrote in 1844, “arouses horror and indignation”.
Visiting today, he might be tempted to use the same words, for very different reasons. On either side of the leafy park, which undulates over the graves of 40,000 Victorian paupers, the bulky concrete frames of new apartment blocks are beginning to rise. They will ultimately become 17- and 22-storey slabs that will in turn be dwarfed by a 41-storey tower, all surrounding the park with a glacial wall of “ultra-sleek urban homes”. And not a single one affordable.
This is MeadowSide, a £200m development by the Far East Consortium, a Hong Kong developer registered in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands. This site – once the gateway to medieval Manchester and depicted in the paintings of LS Lowry – is being ripped up to make way for 756 luxury homes, many already sold off-plan to investors in Hong Kong. Brochures in the marketing suite describe it as a place “where glass meets grass and concrete meets conkers”. It’s also where the forces of international capital meet a city seemingly open to investment at any cost.
“I’m sick of my city being strip-mined,” says Sam Wheeler, councillor for the Piccadilly ward, where the blocks are sprouting. “If you’re going to trash the nature of the area, but you’re doing it to address the housing crisis, maybe we could have a conversation. But these schemes aren’t even providing the homes Manchester desperately needs.”
According to government figures, there are now almost 2,000 households living homeless in temporary accommodation in Manchester, a six-fold increase over the last five years. The city’s homeless population is more than 4,000, the highest rate in northern England, and nearly 13,500 households are on the social housing waiting list. How many social homes were built last year? Just 28.
Yet Manchester is visibly booming. Cranes cluster across the skyline and the concrete liftshafts of future towers dot every corner. The city is even beginning to look drunk on its own success. Brash billboards herald the latest luxury lifestyle concepts: Moda Angel Gardens offers a rooftop sports pitch, cinema and “sky lounge”, with every aspect of its residents’ lives managed through an app.
Oxygen will have five-star hotel facilities and “breathtaking views of a rising global destination”. The brassy Axis Tower, which looks as if the architect’s screen crashed halfway through designing the facade, is “a true epitome of exclusivity and architectural grandeur”. Despite the council having a policy of 20% affordable housing in all new developments, none of these schemes provide any.
As the Guardian revealed last year, across the 61 big residential developments granted permission by Manchester’s planning committee over the previous two years, not one of the 14,667 homes met the government’s definition of affordable, being neither for social rent nor offered at 80% of the market rate. The flood of steroidal schemes that have been rubber-stamped in the lust for growth is now becoming very visible: this is the most radical physical transformation of any UK city for some time.
At the forefront is Deansgate Square, a quartet of enormous grey glass towers that will stand like a defensive battery against the estates of Hulme to the south of the centre. Rising to a whopping 64 storeys, the development is billed as “a new level”. Manchester City’s star striker Sergio Agüero has already snapped up a penthouse.
“It’s taller than anything I imagined was going to happen here,” says the project’s architect, Ian Simpson. He sounds almost surprised at what he has been allowed to do, dwelling on the tallest of the Deansgate four. “It’s the city’s first proper skyscraper, at over 200 metres.” On his desk is a model of the area around Great Jackson Street, showing where the Deansgate shafts will take their place – among a cluster of 25 other towers, the composition of which Simpson also planned. “It’s going to be a mini Manhattan,” he says. “It’s starting to create a real skyline, which Manchester has never had.”
Posters have already appeared announcing the birth of “Manc-hattan”. But the truth is we are a long way from that uplifting skyline. This is more like something you’d see on the outer ring road of a third-tier Chinese city.
The flanks of the Deansgate towers now loom above Simpson’s office, located in a converted warehouse. Simpson can’t escape them at home either. He lives in a huge duplex – complete with its own olive grove – at the top of nearby Beetham Tower. Completed in 2006, Beetham is itself 47 storeys tall, making it, until last year, the city’s tallest structure. “Looking out at night,” he says, “all I see is red aircraft warning lights.”
It sounds like an irritant, but for Simpson this red panorama symbolises the realisation of his quest to make Manchester a mecca for high-rise, city-centre living. “Manchester’s city core had about 400 people living in it when the IRA bomb went off in 1996,” he says. “Now it’s got about 35,000. I’d like it to have 200,000, because the one thing the city needs is people. That drives everything else.”
Simpson says the centre “used to be a ghetto for people who couldn’t get out”, but now it’s a desirable place – and it needs the swanky flats to match. “Part of the problem,” he adds, “is that there aren’t enough expensive homes in the city.”
Simpson believes this influx of luxury flats should be welcomed, because it means that those who would otherwise be driving in from the affluent commuter suburbs – Altringham, Wilmslow, Didsbury – will now be able to live in the centre. The absence of affordable housing, he argues, is a consequence of financial viability. “It’s really difficult to build a tall building cost-effectively. None of these developers really make super profits in Manchester. It’s not at all like London.”
Renaker, the developer-builder behind Deansgate Square and a large number of towers nearby, seems to be doing quite well out of it. In its most recent financial results, the firm reported a turnover of £132.8m, up 37% on the previous year, with pre-tax profits of £4.6m. Last year, it acquired the prominent Trinity Islands site, which has permission to build the tallest residential tower in western Europe. Global real estate group CBRE puts the average residential yield in Manchester at 5.8%, compared with 3% in London. As one industry source puts it: “The returns are higher in Manchester – that’s why all the money moved here.”
Dr Jonathan Silver, an urban academic, began investigating the building boom when he returned to Manchester after a few years away – and found a homeless camp on Oxford Road, near where the first towers were sprouting.
“It was a very powerful juxtaposition that reminded me of cities I’d been researching in Africa,” he says. “Everything had changed. Until 2013, Manchester’s development model was quite provincial: local developers using national banks, building the schemes and selling them to individual buyers. Now it’s a tool the city is using to reinsert itself into the world economy, courting investment from China to Abu Dhabi.” He says that, since the 90s, Manchester’s mantra has been: “Any investment is good investment.” But times have changed, he warns, and the council needs to wake up.
Sam Wheeler agrees. “There was this desperation to reverse the post-industrial decline and transform the city centre at any cost. And they did it. People have come. It’s worked. But we’re in a different situation now. The population isn’t declining and developers aren’t going to run a mile if we insist they contribute to some social housing.”
Richard Leese, leader of Manchester city council since 1996 and much credited with turning the city around, insists the council is tough on developers. “I’m confident we’ve been getting the best deal we could for a long time,” he says. “Our planning officers have access to robust assessment methods, but it’s still hard to make these schemes stack up financially.” He says it comes down to a choice: “We either swallow green belt, or we build densely on brownfield sites. I don’t think the towers are too tall. In 20 years, people will be saying, ‘Why did you build them so small?’”
When St Michael’s tower – the controversial project fronted by the former footballers Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs for tycoon Peter Lim who made his fortune in palm oil – is finally looming over the Grade I-listed town hall, it’s hard to imagine many will wish the 40-storey skyscraper had been even bigger. Leese’s argument seems disingenuous: saying no to these silos does not mean tearing up green fields around the city instead. It is perfectly possible to build mixed-tenure communities at high density on brownfield sites in a manner that fits the rest of the city. It just requires a little more effort and a decent plan – not the current approach of filling each site to its limits and pushing for the maximum height until it hits the airport flight path.
“The situation is truly shameful,” says Dr Margaret Collier of the Manchester Civic Society, which crowdfunded a campaign to challenge St Michael’s tower decision. “The planning system is not fit for purpose, and authorities aren’t looking with sufficient scrutiny at what’s in front of them. We’ve got a wonderful historic core in Manchester. I don’t think it’s right that it has turned out to be impossible to protect it.”
It seems no corner of the city is safe. In the bohemian Northern Quarter, a proposal for an angular glass stump – which was rejected three times by councillors for being too tall – was recently approved, despite the latest vision being the biggest yet. Dubbed the “Shudehill Shard” and backed by Betfred billionaire Fred Done, the project will see a 17-storey glass wedge arrive in the colourful low-rise district, once again providing no affordable housing, despite being on a council-owned site.
As Wheeler asked at the time: “Does [the council] flog off some of the last, democratically controlled land in the city centre for a billionaire’s vanity project, or does it listen to local people and their representatives, and use its power to make developers act with some responsibility?” It chose the former.
There are signs, however, that Mancunians’ vocal criticisms are beginning to have an impact. The first tower to include on-site affordable housing was secured earlier this year, in the form of the 30-storey Swan House, although it will still be only 5% of the total number of flats. Meanwhile, the council has started to make viability assessments public, and has introduced a “clawback mechanism”, for when developments turn out to be more profitable than expected. The council must have the confidence to insist on truly inclusive developments, with a higher calibre of design that respects the city’s fabric, otherwise the lifeblood of Manchester, the fuel in the powerhouse’s engine, will drain away.
“If the barman, cleaner or nurse can’t get a home,” says Wheeler, “it’s not their city. The people who make the city function need to be able to live here. I don’t think that’s a particularly radical thing to ask.”
• Oliver Wainwright will debate these issues at Sin City? The Morality of Urban Growth, at the Fairfield Social Club, Manchester, on 22 October.