The North is risen…

This North West city is seeing regeneration that combines ambitious scale with high-quality civic projects and, in doing so, is bringing new life, new residents and new economic prosperity to Manchester.


Words by Veronica Simpson

On a mission to Manchester last summer to find out where the real hotspots of regenerative action currently are, it soon becomes apparent that it would be easier to ask which place in the city centre is NOT being regenerated. There are pulsing pockets of development activity of varying kinds and scales all around the core of this bold and bolshie North West hub for commerce, higher education and recreation (always a cut above the average in its offering, from football to theatre to live music). Ripples of activity are also emanating from the centre towards Manchester University, Salford and beyond.

Even Manchester Airport is scheduled to be the site of a whole new piece of city, currently dubbed Airport City, under the stewardship of King's Cross developer Argent.

But this is so much more than one council declaring open house for opportunistic development. There appears to be a philosophy and a programme underpinning the work going on in each area, and a concern for the impacts both in and between them. All of which led the Financial Times to declare last February: 'The city's extraordinary resurgence is the best model for closing the North-South economic divide.'

National Graphene Institute
Image Credit: Hufton+Crow

Grit, confidence, individualism and entrepreneurism have formed the bedrock of Manchester's DNA since the Industrial Revolution. These qualities are not just woven through its economy, but its culture -- they personified its music scene through the late Seventies and early Eighties (Factory Records, the Hacienda, Joy Division, The Smiths) and again in the late Nineties (Oasis, Happy Mondays and the whole 'Madchester' scene).

That same combination appears to be coursing through its veins in concentrated doses currently -- evident in the many startups that populate the formerly abandoned factories scattered around the city as well as the developers and architects helping to shape the look and feel of future Manchester.

National Graphene Institute
Image Credit: Hufton+Crow

But why this scale of activity and investment in Manchester, compared with other vibrant UK cities, such as Bristol or Leeds? The statistics are compelling. It is the fastest growing UK city outside of London, with a population that has grown by 20 per cent in the past decade, reaching 500,000 currently. It is expected to rise by another 100,000 by 2024. A recent Oxford economics report, Beyond the City, predicted that employment growth in Manchester over the next five years would be 3.8 per cent -- higher than Berlin, Tokyo and Paris. The average age is 29. After London, it is the UK's most popular city for foreign investment -- Chinese money is behind many current development projects.

The £941m relocation of chunks of the BBC to Salford in 2011, along with 500 journalists, has clearly contributed beneficially to the mix: there's a whole new wave of culture vultures now settled in and around Manchester, looking for the same diversity and quality of space in which to work, rest and play that they enjoyed in London and, in turn, offering a wealth of creative, new media and technology skills to the local pool. According to Peter Salmon, who as head of BBC North masterminded the move: 'A lot of younger people starting out who can't afford London any more look to Salford and Media City. We really benefit from the negative side of London's growth,' he told The Guardian last July.

The Whitworth
Image Credit: Alan Williams

But the city's greatest asset in this period of rapid reinvention is clearly its governance. Manchester has enjoyed more than 20 years of stable leadership. Sir Richard Leese, current leader of Manchester City Council, and Sir Howard Bernstein, the council's chief executive, have between them guided the city on its path to growth for nearly two decades. There is little dissent within the council -- of the 96 councillors on the council, all are now Labour (a lone 'rebel', belonging to the Independent Labour party, went in the last elections in May). The degree of unity of message and tactics led the aforementioned FT article to suggest there was 'something almost Chinese about the way Manchester is run.'

Whether Chinese dictators would approve of its policies or not, the Tory political establishment appears to. In 2014, George Osborne declared he wanted Manchester to be the engine of a 'northern powerhouse'. In February 2015, he began the process of devolving power to the city council, handing over a £6bn budget for health and social care.

The council doesn't just have political unity, it has money: much of the recent development has been made possible thanks to the resources (and common interests) represented by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), made up of all 10 metropolitan boroughs. This kind of clout clearly facilitates investment towards the city's economic and cultural wellbeing, alongside the more speculative commercial development.

One St Peter’s Square
Image Credit: Edmund Sumner

The opening of Home last May, a colourful, Meccanoo-designed, multifunctional arts centre with cinemas, theatres and bars (see September FX), was made possible thanks to the GMCA. And, having opened this arts hub in the heart of one still-regenerating piece of city, it announced that it was making available £70m for a new large-scale opera house, to be the home of Manchester International Festival, in the currently disused riverside site where Granada Studios once held sway.

The clarity and consistency of the GMCA's vision has, undoubtedly, a part of what attracts international investors: the Beijing Construction Engineering Group has a 20 per cent equity stake in the Airport City development; Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, who bought Manchester City FC in 2008, has also brought much-needed cash -- £1bn investments have helped pay for a £200m new stadium, helping to transform both the men's and women's City teams into formidable, trophy-winning contenders.

Some observers trace the current passion for development back to the 1996 IRA bombing. A horrific incident -- injuring more than 200 people and causing £1bn of damage -- with devastating impact on the city centre, opened up discussions as to how the site could be improved. Leese, however, traces the council's vision for growth back to the demolition in 1991 of the Hulme Crescents estate (once the largest public-housing development in Europe, it soon became known as one of the worst). Either way, the need to not just restore but reinvent central Manchester gave SimpsonHaugh and Partners -- one of the major practices on the Manchester scene, with its main office here as well as a strong satellite office in London -- the opportunity to plot a coherent path through the central streets with various cultural highlights along the way, among them the practice's own landmark sand-blasted glass and copper Urbis building, now housing the National Museum of Football.

Town hall extension and Library
Image Credit: Morley Von Sternberg

David Green, partner at SimpsonHaugh, who has spent the past 20 years here since graduating from Manchester University's School of Architecture, clearly feels a huge sense of pride in the city's evolution, as well as his practice's part in it. SimpsonHaugh designed Manchester's tallest building -- the slender, glass Beetham Hilton Tower (completed 2007) -- and is both masterplanner and housing designer for the site of the former Granada TV offices and studios, now called St John's Quarter, for developer Allied London.

The other major city-centre development sites in which SimpsonHaugh is involved, along with several other major national and international practices, include St Peter's Square and Spinningfields (a rather grey, glassy and corporate section of the city developed by Allied London). Another area now dubbed NOMA (for North Manchester) has long been dominated by vintage storage, retail and office buildings owned by the Cooperative Society. One of the largest is being refurbished as offices by Sheppard Robson; it boasts a new Coop HQ designed by 3DReed, with landscaping by Meccanoo.

Inside the new-look Town Hall Extension
Inside the new-look Town Hall Extension. Image Credit: Morley Von Sternberg

The University of Manchester, one of the top UK universities and also a major landowner, has some 20 new buildings in the pipeline or newly completed -- the latter include Jestico + Whiles' new Graphene Institute (see case study), and MUMA's stunning The Whitworth extension (see case study). The potential landing site for HS2 is also the subject of a new masterplan by Bennetts Associates.

The holistic planning ethos seemingly underpinning these developments has been formalised recently with the launch of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework document: it contains a declared ambition 'to create new neighbourhoods with a choice of tenure, well supported by social infrastructure, good transport links, green spaces and an emphasis on ambitious design and high-quality delivery.' This sense of weighing up the needs of the many rather than the landowning/property-developing few is exemplified in the aforementioned new city space where Home now sits -- a glittering blue gem of cultural opportunity (albeit surrounded by rather unlovely student flats and bland office buildings) as well as with the Granada site (new homes, new office space new start-up studios, plus the possibility of a large opera house); and especially in St Peter's Square, where a grand, new public piazza is finally giving an appropriately handsome setting for the Library, Town Hall Extension and Glenn Howells Architects' pale and elegant office building, One St Peter's Square for Argent -- an exemplary project within Argent's already impressive portfolio.

Davinder Bansal, one of GHA's directors, says: 'This is not just about a grade-A office building. It's a catalyst for transformation. Because of the context and location there was an opportunity here that was unlike any usual office building.' Having bought the site in 2008 just as the recession was kicking in, Argent used that downtime to work closely with the city council, Heritage England (formerly English Heritage), and other stakeholders to ensure that the quality of the wider site was maximised, as well as the quality of the building. GHA was asked to make a sufficiently ambitious architectural statement, though 'not shout-out or be dominant,' says Bansal. 'It was to be respectful of the civic buildings but not to copy it. They wanted a modern classic.'

The Whitworth art gallery's director Maria Balshaw confirms that this sense of partnership runs throughout Manchester's current regeneration programming: 'That's born out by the strategic decisions the city as a whole has made. To give you an example, the whole of the university side of the city, all along Oxford Road down to The Whitworth, has been developed thanks to a partnership between [landowner] the University of Manchester and the city. Some 25 years ago, there would never have been a university that had a strategic partnership with its city council. But that's how Manchester works now. The university has social responsibility as one of its key goals. It stands for internationally important research, and also social responsibility for its city. That's a unique statement for a Russell Group university.

A glass link joins the library and the Town Hall Extension
A glass link joins the library and the Town Hall Extension. Image Credit: Morley Von Sternberg

The university and the city have realised that together they can bring much greater investment into the city. If they want to attract Nobel Prize winners to the university or international investment into the city, they need a city that people want to live in. What keeps the two physicists who discovered graphene in Manchester is a world-class cultural offer: there are good schools for their children, they can live in an attractive part of the city. There has been a long-held and serious realisation that unless people can enjoy the physical fabric and facilities of a city the investment that businesses need won't follow.'

Tom Bloxham, former chair of design-led developer Urban Splash, and until recently chancellor of the university, has played his part here -- not just in setting the tone for the city's Nineties' warehouse redevelopments, but also in bringing people back into the city centre to live. Says Balshaw: 'Tom recently pointed out that, up until the late Eighties, there were only 200 people living in the city.

Now, there are 20,000. The vision is for 100,000. If they are going to live in the city they want to enjoy green spaces, great shops and restaurants, walkable spaces. But you have to have culture as a part of it.'

Balshaw offers a final reflection on what makes this feisty northern destination such a winning proposition to both residents and investors: scale. She says: 'One of the great things about Manchester is it's big enough to be internationally powerful and small enough for people to meet and work together. It's those friendships and partnerships that have driven this growth. People ask why [all this activity in] Manchester? Because people get together, work together, enjoy each others' successes together. There's a really collegiate sense of what's for the benefit of everyone.'

If this is the model Manchester is pursuing, then you can't help but hope that others (such as London) might take note -- and wish them the very best of luck.

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