Still stuck in the house with a broken ankle so….

It’s will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I’m a great fan of Manchester. I’ve lived here all my life but have had the good fortune to have visited some the great cities of the world, London, Paris, Rome, New York, San Francisco, and very fine they are but nothing quite works for me and feels better than touching down at Manchester Airport or arriving at Piccadilly Station and coming home.

Over the life of this blog I’ve been marking the redevelopment of the city and, what I’ve posted on it, is really the tip of the iceberg of what is actually going on. If I were to follow every development it would be a full time job and I’d need staff to keep up. And the developments in Manchester have happened at a time when the world was in the biggest economic slump since the 1930s. Other cities in the UK may be doing well but Manchester, along with London, seems to have become almost recession proof. The building projects slowed down in the depths of the recession but never stopped. Apart from one year, 2011, the economy grew, sometimes spectacularly, 9.6% in 2013. New businesses are opening and thriving and the population is going up. We seem to have got into a virtuous circle where a thriving economy attracts more business, more wealth and so on. The increasing number of hotels are full and, always an indicator of a sucessful city, people eat out on a Tuesday night in well supported restaurants.

However, not everyone shares my enthusiasm for the developments. Some think the city is going in the wrong direction. There seem to be three arguments against the current spate of development of the city. One, the developments are only aimed at the affluent part of the city that can enjoy them and some people in the city can never afford to eat in the high end restaurants or shop in the likes of Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. Two, the city centre is pushing at its traditional boundaries and is spilling over into the surrounding suburbs, displacing the local population who can never afford to buy into the skyscraper apartment blocks rising around them. Three, Manchester is becoming a city like any other the world over with a style of architecture that would fit in any city from Melbourne to Vancouver via Hong Kong and Saõ Paulo and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Before I address those three points, a little history lesson. As I understand it, in Georgian times, Manchester was a small, well built, prosperous market town. Little of that town remains, a rather grand house on King Street (now the Jack Wills store) and a few houses along St. John Street and a scattering of buildings across the Northern Quarter.

Then the Industrial Revolution happened Manchester found itself at the centre of a region that was perfect for the production of cotton. Within a few decades the city exploded, Georgian Manchester was swept away to make way for Cottonopolis. I wonder if there were people about then bemoaning the destruction of the Georgian town? The population grew and grew and the city spread to swallow the surrounding fields, villages and hamlets. It might have made a lot of money but it wasn’t pretty. Stung by accusations of ‘Philistinism’, the Manchester cotton barons looked around at what they had created and saw that it was not good. There followed a period when the city built many of its most iconic buildings like the Town Hall, the Royal Exchange and the great commercial buildings along the likes of Princess, Whitworth and Oxford Streets. Cultural institutions like the museums and galleries and the Hallé Orchestra were set up. It must have been a building boom like we are experiencing now, if not greater.

It was in this period that the city centre grew to fill its current boundaries, roughly an area between the River Irwell and the railway viaducts that skirt the southern edge of the centre still. By 1914, Manchester was a global city, the population of what is now Greater Manchester making it the 9th largest city on the planet and controlling the world’s lucrative cotton industry. In the summer of 1914 they must have thought it would last for ever.

But it didn’t. Other countries began to produce cotton more cheaply. Slowly at first, the cotton industry began to die, taking with it the engineering industries that supported it. World War II happened and the city suffered badly in raids by the Luftwaffe. After the war the decline of the cotton industry sped up and while German cities rebuilt by restoring what they could of their former glory, British cities went in for the brave new world look with cities carved up to accommodate cars and the brutalism of 1960s architecture. Manchester was not immune.

By the 1980s vast swathes of former industrial land had been abandoned and the population of the city had declined as people moved to more prosperous parts of the country in the search for work. By 1990 the city had lost 500,000 people from its pre World War II height of 2.7million. Politicians in London were talking about the ‘planned decline’ of Manchester and the other northern cities. Chilling phrase.

Manchester was having none of this ‘planned decline’ and over the last thirty years has fought back hard to restore its former position. And it has worked. Building on its strengths, every artisan coffee shop to the new cultural infrastructure has added to Manchester’s attractiveness as a place to live, work and do business. Manchester regularly appears near the top of lists of cities to visit, live in and do business. No longer is Manchester looked at as a place to go to and get out of as fast as you can. We have become a success. And we have the problems of success which, as one of the city fathers pointed out, are a damn sight better to deal with than the problems of failure.

And I think, at this point, it’s probably a good idea to define what Manchester actually is. Is it the sliver of land that runs down the centre of Greater Manchester from, roughly, Prestwich in the north to Manchester Airport in the south with a population of about 520,000? Or is it the ten local authorities, with a shared interest, that make up the continuous urban area that runs from Wigan in the west to the Pennines in the east. From the old cotton towns of Lancashire in the north to the plush Cheshire suburbs in the south, with a population of 2.7 million? I’ve always though the latter and that view has been reinforced recently by the election of a Mayor for Greater Manchester. And people from outside of Greater Manchester regard Manchester as the wider urban area. You live in Leigh/Oldham/Rochdale? Where’s that? Near Manchester? I know about that place! Some areas of Greater Manchester are fiercely independent but there is an acceptance that we will all be more prosperous and be able to make out voice heard in places like Westminster if we all shout together.

But to return to people’s concerns about the direction of development in Manchester. First is that some local people aren’t able to join and enjoy the new developments in the city. They don’t see the shops as places they can go, they don’t eat in the restaurants, they don’t visit the theatres and cultural attractions. Of course it may be that these things don’t appeal to them and are not things that are a part of their culture. That’s fine of course. I’m not into cage fighting and have no desire to be part of that culture but some people enjoy it. The more common reason given is that they are poor and can’t afford to do these things. And certainly, to enjoy some of the things on offer in Manchester you are going to have to flash the cash. But that’s the same of any city anywhere I suspect. It’s actually a very simple and, at the same time, a very difficult problem to solve.

The renaissance of Manchester as a city has attracted new businesses to the city and created new job opportunities. These are not all zero hours jobs with Uber and the like, many are well paid with all the advantages that implies. These jobs are sucking in determined, educated people from Manchester and, increasingly, from other places, coming here to put down roots and make a life. That people from certain parts of the city aren’t able to access these jobs is they lack the education and skills to get them. Not everyone can get out of poverty by being a Premiership footballer or being lucky on the lottery. The way forward is through education for the majority of us. Go to school, learn to read, write and do maths, throw in a smattering of other subjects, work hard at GCSE level, do some A levels, access some higher education, learn a bit about the wider culture of the world, present yourself well at interview and get one of those jobs. Simple.

But, for some, it’s not that simple of course. I’m pretty sure that the amount the government spends on the education of a child in Knutsford is the same as spent on a child in north Manchester. But the outcomes for those children can be radically different. Of course the parents of the Knutsford child could afford to hire a tutor to bump up the grades of their child before GCSE. They might donate some cash to the school for a new computer suite as well. But the main reason a child in Knutsford does well is that the culture of the family matches that of the school. The Knutsford child has from an early age been told, either overtly or subliminally, that they will do well if they work hard. They will have a home full of books, parents will take an interest in their education, homework will be done, there will be trips to museums and galleries, places of historical and geographical interest. They will be talked to and included in conversations about things that we value as a society, the kind of things that lead to being successful in life. They will sample interesting foods in restaurants, they will be taken abroad where they will explore different cultures. They will be told they will be a success, by school and home, and we shouldn’t be surprised if that’s what they become.

Of course there will be homes in north Manchester where that culture exists even if it’s not as well financed as that in Knutsford. And the children in those homes will go on to have successful lives as well. But in some homes in north Manchester the culture runs contrary to that of the schools. Education isn’t really seen as a way of improving yourself even though, if you ask, they will say it is. The parents don’t really believe it because, possibly, it didn’t happen for them. Children from Knutsford and north Manchester are going to rebel of course, with that rebellious period coming, usually, in the vital period up to the vital GCSE stage. But, your Knutsford kid, pushing the boundaries and developing independence, will always have it at the back of his/her mind that education matters. Sadly, too many children in north Manchester don’t have that. Many do worse at GCSE level than their contemporaries in more favoured suburbs and by the time they have matured and realised the opportunity missed they are on the back foot and losing in the race for the good jobs with Mr/Miss/Ms Knutsford.

Quite how you get the kids in north Manchester to wise up I’m not sure. Some say the teachers need to do more. Having teachers in my family, I’m at a loss to see how they can do more. Throwing money at the problem doesn’t seem to work either. I’m sure that the parents of north Manchester kids want them to do well but don’t seem to know how to do it as effectively as the parents in Knutsford (could be Hale, Bowden, Didsbury, Chorlton of course). How we can get inside the culture of an area and change it to one that truly sees education as a way forward and out of poverty and get to a point so they can afford a meal in Iberica, Manchester House,The Ivy etc. I really don’t know. But if the people of less favoured parts of the city are to be included in its success that a lot of us enjoy, someone is going to have to grasp that nettle.

The second point people are concerned about is the expansion of the city centre. I may be wrong but what we have defined as the city centre was cemented in the years running up to World War I. After that event Manchester began a slow decline with the demise of the cotton industry and the city centre stopped expanding with places like the one we now call the Northern Quarter actively going into decline. World War II destroyed parts of the city centre and the further decline of traditional industries left swathes of the city centre abandoned.

With the renaissance of the city the decline has been reversed. Old buildings have been repurposed and the ‘zombie’ car parks have all but disappeared. Spectacular so at Greengate, opposite Manchester Cathedral where it looks like a completely different city from 5 years ago. The developments are a mixture of business and residential with the tallest ones built, going up and planned, being apartment blocks. And apartment blocks for the well heeled people who have the well paid jobs in Spinningfields and Media City. Why aren’t they building things for families and local people they cry? Well, the figures don’t add up. I read somewhere that land values in Manchester now match Manhattan. Build a couple of semi detached on land in Manchester city centre and the prices would make an oligarch blanch. That’s why Manchester now, like New York did, is developing upwards. The people who are buying or renting the apartments want to because they are close to the city centre where the amenities and lifestyle they want is happening so the developers are simply addressing a demand.

Why not family accommodation like you see in city centres in continental European cities? Because we don’t have that tradition. Well off young people enjoy the city centre lifestyle for a few years here but when that first baby appears they’re off the Chorlton and Didsbury for a nicely converted semi, a garden, good schools and a tram station to get them into town when needed. As for building for local people see section on education above. Though I do accept that it would be a good idea to have more integrated communities.

But we do seem to have got to a point where the traditional city centre is, mostly, fully developed and it is bursting it’s constraints. It’s looking for new places to spread. Greengate was mentioned. Across the entire length of Great Ancoats Street into Angel Meadow and the Irk Valley, Ancoats and New Islington, down Oxford Road to meet the universities coming up it, into Hulme along First Street and the massive developments around Owen Street and towards Ordsall. These areas are changing as a result. This is what happens when cities grow and are successful. It is nothing to be afraid of and should be embraced. True, some people will see their area change and people only seem to like change when it’s happening somewhere else and not outside their front door. What we are seeing in Manchester is Human Geography in action turning rundown areas like Ancoats into successful parts of the city.

And for those people afraid of the change I can only see more of the same as the city centre expands. I can see it happening in Ardwick beyond Mayfield, along Upper Brook Street towards the universities, from Ancoats to the Etihad Stadium and along City Road into Pomona Docks where the developing city centre will eventually meet and join up with the expanded Salford Quays. This development of the city is good and infinitely better than the decline we had only thirty years ago.

The third concern is the style of the buildings being put up. Manchester doesn’t have a style or an era that defines the city. We are not spectacularly Georgian like Bath or quaintly medieval like York. The closest we ever got to that was Victorian gothic but the Luftwaffe and 1960s planners did for that. Manchester’s charm lies in its eclectic mix of buildings, you wander about and suddenly come across something totally unexpected. Now into this mix we have now had thrown an awful lot of early 21st century towers and the like. And I do. Especially where the old is in juxtaposition with the new like with the John Rylands Library and the Armani Store building, Central Library facing No 1 St. Peter’s Square and the long Victorian horizontal of the railway buildings along Deansgate ended by the emphatic vertical of the Hilton Tower. All good stuff IMHO.

We are told we are, again, a global city, with aspirations to be a top 30 global city within a couple of decades with all the benefits, and problems I suppose, that might entail. To do this we need to have people come here to invest and see us as a viable alternative to London, Paris and other European cities. These people, with the influence and cash to invest, expect to see certain things. They expect a city that has great amenities which Manchester does. And they expect a city to make a great first impression. It’s like being on a first date or going for an interview. The first minutes really counts. For Manchester that means possible suitors landing at a world class airport and driving into a city with an emphatic skyline that says ‘success’. And that means towers, tall gleaming ones that catch the sun (when we have it) and radiate light at night. They see them in other sucessful cities and expect them to be in Manchester. We do have a world culture now and we shouldn’t be surprised if that stretches to architecture. And, to be honest, in spite of the towers, there is still a lot of old Manchester left. Once that first impression has been made we can then introduce them to our more low key attractions and woo them over so they set up business.

I’ve always been a fan of good architecture and firmly believe that everything that is built, be it a retail shed or a gleaming skyscraper should be built to the highest possible standards. Sadly, not everyone shares my opinion. Where things are not done that way we should not be afraid to say so and get people to change where necessary. We’ve just done that with the Booth Street development where even little me did his part by tweeting and blogging about a very ill conceived scheme. I wasn’t able to change people’s minds over the Central Library blob though.

I think every new scheme needs to be looked at on its merit. People complain there is too much glass and steel in Manchester. Possibly. But I have to say I’m a fan of the corporate perfection of Spinningfields and, judging by the number of people enjoying it, I’m not alone. I love the contrast between that and the dignity of civic Manchester, not far away around Albert and St. Peter’s Squares and the funky, chaos of the Northern Quarter. I take visitors to all three and they leave feeling that have been to three separate cities and love that the city is so diverse. Places like Spinningfields have added to the city’s architectural lexicon, not degraded it. People should remember what the area was like before.

So let’s not be afraid of the new. Keep what is good of the past but let’s not get stuck with the idea that just because something is old it has to be kept. I’ll lie in front of any bulldozer or wrecking ball headed towards Central Library, the Midland Hotel or one of the great cotton warehouses of Cottonopolis. But an unremarkable, brick built building in Piccadilly Basin? Just because it was old? I was more concerned about the future of the thriving sandwich business inside it. Choose you battles. Ancoats Dispensary…yes! Unremarkable buildings of little architectural merit, not so much.

Final point. Manchester has a north south divide. Of the ten boroughs that make up Greater Manchester, the southern ones, Salford, Trafford, Manchester, Stockport and Tameside have a GDP that will not look out of place in the Home Counties. The northern boroughs, Wigan, Bolton, Bury, Oldham and Rochdale have a GDP of about half that of the southern part of the city. Of course there are pockets of poverty in the south and some very affluent areas in the north. But we do have that north/south divide. It does need to be tackled, hopefully with the north of the city being brought up to the levels of the south.

It’s a difficult one. Manchester city centre is always going to attract the big cultural and business concerns and well to do people are going to want to live there where they can enjoy the lifestyle. Not every borough can have an international airport or the BBC setting up shop attracting 1000s of well paid jobs. There’s a limit to the number of world class universities or football clubs one city can have. We need, as a city, to work together to see what we need to do to develop and prosper and how each of the different boroughs can develop to add to the prosperity of the city and its people as a whole. Housing in south Manchester is expensive, in the north less so, what could be done to develop a Chorlton or Didsbury in Rochdale or Oldham? How could we improve communication links so people living in one place could work in another. What can we do to bring brownfield sites into productive use again as places to live and work? How should we develop the tram system? Do we make the best use of brownfield sites along motorways?  The RHS is building a world class garden complex in Worsley, what other attractions do we need to attract people to visit the city and live here?

How can this be achieved? I have no idea or simple fixes. I’m hoping people far more clever and connected than me are working on it.

Lovely picture of fast developing Manchester by Ed Howe, or VDB, of the Skyscrapercity Forum, he is passionate about Manchester and works hard to promote the city. Log on to the site and see what he does. It’s wonderful. Hope he doesn’t mind me using his picture as I can’t get out to take my own for the foreseeable future!

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