Clouds on the horizon

The pace of residential development in Manchester is so great it’s creating losers as well as winners

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Anyone who has visited Manchester in the last five years won’t have failed to notice the glut of looming skyscrapers being thrown up by a roaring mass of cranes.

“We are growing too quickly if people are suffering and people aren’t benefiting.”

In just a few short years, Manchester’s skyline has become unrecognisable. Glitzy glass towers dwarf the city’s traditional red brick buildings. Artisan bakeries, coffee shops and microbreweries have sprung up out of nowhere. And across the boroughs of Greater Manchester, people are being left behind.

In 2014, then Chancellor George Osborne delivered a speech in Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry. He promised a Northern Powerhouse initiative, an ambitious plan that would deliver investment, jobs, and infrastructure to the north.

Since then, the population of Manchester city centre has doubled to 60,000, average rents have risen by 40 per cent, and homelessness has skyrocketed.

New neighbourhoods with catchy names coined by developers are springing up on the edges of the city centre: the Green Quarter, Angel Gardens, Noma, New Islington, Cutting Room Square.

A city characterised by its proud working-class history has become a playground for investors and developers. But not everyone is benefitting. In October 2019 government figures revealed almost 2,000 households were in temporary accommodation in Manchester, a six-fold increase over the five years, while levels of street homelessness were the highest in northern England.

Manchester may be undergoing investment at an unprecedented rate, but with rapid regeneration comes insidious gentrification. Mancunians who have lived and worked in the city all their lives are struggling to get by, and people are being pushed out of their homes.

This juxtaposition of expeditious growth taking place against a backdrop of poverty and destitution is the focal point for Manctopia, a four-part BBC documentary following the winners and losers of Manchester’s property boom.

Among the winners is developer Tim Heatley. Heatley and his firm Capital and Centric are currently spending £2 million a week transforming the area around Manchester Piccadilly train station – known to locals as the city’s red light district.

Heatley, 40, hopes the area rebranded Piccadilly East will become the new neighbourhood of choice for affluent buyers and renters attracted to the city.

Heatley, from Eccles, Salford, has won awards for his regeneration projects, creating energy-efficient buildings with expensive architecture and courtyards, and green space.

The documentary follows Heatley on site as his construction teams get to work on building Manchester’s homes of the future. But while he spends his days overseeing multi-million pound building projects, outside work Heatley chairs the Greater Manchester Mayor’s Charity, set up by Andy Burnham, which has so far raised £2 million for charities tackling homelessness.

Heatley admits his decision to get involved with Burnham’s charity was partly driven by guilt, but he knows Manchester’s homeless problem is bad for business.

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“I believe in inclusive growth,” Heatley tells Big Issue North. “I don’t think you can grow too quickly, but we are growing too quickly if it means people are suffering and people aren’t benefiting. And I think Manchester is at that stage of its evolution now, and that’s not a criticism of Manchester. Thus far it’s been very growth-focused, and I think that’s right to have been, but now the next stage of that legacy and that growth has to be how we find ways of improving the lives for all of Greater Manchester’s residents and the city centre residents.”

Affordable housing is the elephant in the room, or rather, the elephant absent from the room. Although Heatley has an affordable housing project in the pipeline, so far he has built no affordable homes in the city. He isn’t the only one. In 2018 an investigation by the Guardian found that 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 per cent of the market rate.

Manchester City Council says its starting point for negotiation on affordable housing is 20 per cent on new schemes but developers often get consent for plans with 0-3 per cent affordable housing, or the equivalent in section 106 payments to build social infrastructure. In two instances reported by Big Issue North, there were no affordable homes in schemes where the council was actually a development partner. Council leader Sir Richard Leese has admitted it can’t make robust Section 106 demands because developers will walk away.

Heatley says legislation on affordable homes needs to come from the top.

“The reason why we have this debate around affordable homes is because there’s ambiguity,” he says. “It ends up being an assessment of how much the land was and how much the building is going to cost, and how much ‘affordable’ can you afford to give as a development.

“It becomes a bit of a guessing game for developers when they’re buying land. This is where the confusion comes in. Developers really don’t mind if they have to build 5 per cent or 10 per cent or even 50 per cent affordable housing. If there’s a rule in place that means they can bid for that land on the same level playing field as every other development that’s all they want. But that’s not the case.

“If the government said half of all developments have to be affordable, for example – if they said that and every developer had to bid for that land on the same basis, that would make life a lot simpler for everybody. I could say all our projects were going to be 50 per cent affordable homes. But I’d never be able to buy land because I’d be priced out by competitors.”

A victim of Manchester’s success is single mum of two Christina Hughes. After living in Winton, Salford, for most of her life, Manctopia shows Hughes opening a Section 21 notice from her landlord – an eviction for no reason – at the property she has been privately renting for £670 a month.

The camera follows Hughes as she faces the impossible task of finding an affordable home for herself and her two young children. But she finds there are some 97,000 people on the region’s housing waiting list. Her dreams of finding a three-bedroom home with a garden close to her support network are soon shattered, and Hughes and her children have to temporarily move in with her mother.

Hughes’s situation seems so unfair and impossible, it comes as a surprise that she doesn’t break down on camera, but she tells Big Issue North there were many tears shed behind closed doors.

“Because of [everything] that’s happened I had to go to the doctors and get a bit of help, so that stopped me from crying at everything,” she says. “My family moved here when I was 14 months old – we’ve been here just short of 40 years. I never, ever thought it would boom the way it has done, especially in the past five or so years.

“Even people who bought council houses years ago are selling them now and making nearly £100,000. The house prices have just shot through the roof.

“I didn’t plan to be a single mother. I don’t think anybody does. But I did expect, without sounding entitled, to get social housing and to be a priority because I work and I’m raising two children on my own. I just wanted to be able to provide for them and I wanted to stay local to where my friends and family are.”

In the end, Hughes and her two children, Hadley, six, and Kit, five, are offered a two bedroom flat.

“It’s a high-rise flat but they’re so well kept, they’re really lovely. It’s really safe,” she says. “A flat wasn’t ideal. I don’t think kids should be in high-rise flats but it was better than the alternative of being housed outside the area.

“The children do say they miss our old house. They did play in the garden but now we’re over the road from a park.”

Hughes is one of many Mancunians to be uprooted by the city’s ongoing regeneration. Manctopia follows homeless services and night shelters as they are overwhelmed with demand, while well-heeled renters search for penthouses to live in at a cost of £8,000 a month. The job now, for the council and developers, is to find a way to balance the growth of the city with the needs of its citizens.

For Heatley, his upcoming affordable housing development – comprising 100 homes – is one place to start.

“On our crusade for investment and tourism and growth, we will be judged on how we treat the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our city. I think that’s going to be really important moving forward,” he says.

“[Our affordable housing development] will be available and accessible – and I’m talking about over 100 homes in the heart of the city centre. They will be affordable to people who would have never been able to afford to buy in the city centre.

“It’s important to us because we can help create a city that’s diverse, inclusive and interesting and edgy and cultured and varied, and that’s what makes Manchester brilliant.

“To be able to work in the city in the future and for us continue to have a job we need Manchester to be all those things. We’re not doing it purely out of the goodness of our hearts, because I think people don’t trust that either – people think hold on, you’re a property developer, why would you do this? We have to be clear about it: it’s good for business, it’s good for the city.

“We can repeat this approach 10 times over and so should other developers. It needs a bit of cooperation between different organisations and developers to make it happen but it can be done.”

Manctopia is available on BBC iPlayer

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