Manchester makes a comeback

From blighted wasteland to sparkling metropolis ... How a forlorn city reinvented itself, by Andrew Saunders.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

After a mixed 100 or so years leading up to the millennium, the 21st century has got off to a flying start in Manchester. Fuelled by a canny mix of public money and private enterprise, the famously damp and gloomy sub-Pennine city is now basking in the welcome sunshine of a commercial summer longer and hotter than any since the glory days of the industrial revolution in the late 1700s.

In those distant times it was the rag trade that paid for everything, earning Manchester the nickname Cottonopolis. The city's modern revival is led by the booming housing, property, retail, leisure and professional services sectors, but it's no less impressive for that. It even managed to make a reasonable fist - both financial and critical - of the 2002 Commonwealth Games, the kind of submerged rock on which many other municipal vessels have foundered. Proud Mancunians (and there is no other kind) now speak openly of living in the nation's second city, comparing it with Barcelona and Lyons rather than with Leeds or Liverpool.

Since 1996, when the detonation of an IRA lorry bomb parked outside the Arndale shopping centre forced the wholesale reconstruction of the City's commercial district, the pace of change in Manchester has been unrelenting and faster than Wayne Rooney running down a shot on goal. Whole tracts of the centre have been rebuilt in an ultra-modern style - signature buildings such as Urbis, The Bridgewater Hall and 1 Spinningfields Square stamping the glittering hallmark of progress on the face of the city and pointing the way to a bright and shiny future.

'The transformation of Manchester has been amazing,' says Tom Bloxham, founder of property company UrbanSplash and a prime mover on the Mancunian regeneration scene. 'In the past 10 years, the city has grown at a phenomenal rate, probably more dramatically than at any other time in its history, even the great Victorian times. There was a backlog of development waiting to be done - for many years nobody wanted to live or even work in the centre of Manchester.'

These days, everybody does. More than 5,000 apartments were built in the city in 2004 - and over 70,000 sq m of new office space. A further 5,500 apartments will be ready this year. Areas where disused warehouses and factories had lain derelict for decades - Castlefields, Deansgate Locks and Barbirolli Square, for example - have been revived seemingly overnight with chic new loft-style flats, offices, bars and restaurants, spaces in which the new moneyed urban elite can work, rest and play.

Cranespotters (yes, they really exist) put the number of tower rigs in the central area alone at 38 and rising. Newsstands and cafes throng with hard-hatted builders, and the noise of angle grinders, pile drivers and concrete mixers is never far away. Yet despite the frenetic pace of construction, first-time buyers complain of being priced out of the market, and even 30-year-old office buildings fill up as fast as they can be refurbished.

For anyone more used to the Manchester of 20 years ago - gritty, grimy, down-on-its-luck - the city's all-new, towering glass-and-steel facade comes as a bit of a shock.

Bloxham was a pioneer of the loft-living trend, and his funky apartments - both newbuild and reclaimed industrial units - now grace former inner-city ghettos in Liverpool, Bradford, Bristol and Plymouth, as well as Manchester. He is involved in reviving the fortunes of the old textile district beyond Piccadilly Gardens, a run-down area that has been euphemistically christened The Northern Quarter, and an ambitious 10-year project to create a new community to the east in Ancoats.

Named New Islington and designed by Stirling prize-winning architect Will Alsop, this latter scheme involves turning one of the direst of Manchester's many old council estates into a 4,700-home waterside idyll, complete with what must be one of the only new canals to be dug in Britain since the war. 'There's a lot to do,' Bloxham admits. 'Some areas go down so far that you have to make a huge statement to get them going back up again.'

Along with just about everyone else you meet in Manchester, he is fulsome in his praise for the role the city council has played in this reversal of fortune. 'The council must take a lot of the credit. They have had a consistent vision of where they want the city to go, and they have been very pragmatic about getting there. They are open and accessible to businesspeople, and have a genuine desire not only to get re-elected but to make the city a better place to live.'

The chief executive of this unusually popular municipal body is Sir Howard Bernstein.

Described by colleagues as a 'property developer disguised as the town crier', Bernstein, 52, has been a council employee since 1971 and led both the Arndale bomb regeneration and Commonwealth Games projects. He makes an unlikely local hero, and yet it is he as much as anyone who has made the city what it is today. And he has skilfully avoided the fates of so many other, less well managed urban regeneration projects along the way, condemned to death by public inquiry or planning wrangles, or simply petering out through lack of money.

What's his secret? 'Councils can't do everything. What we have done better than most in Manchester is make what I regard as prudent interventions, using our limited resources intelligently to achieve maximum leverage from private and public-sector organisations. Other councils might get involved in one or two public/private joint ventures. In Manchester there are a very great number of them. We have worked hard at building those relationships and at giving the private sector the chance to get involved in the strategic shape of the city.'

Urbis, the landmark museum and cultural complex designed by Ian Simpson, is a favourite example of the Bernstein method. Using limited public funds to subsidise schemes such as this may attract controversy, he agrees, but it helps pull in vast amounts of private cash that the council could not possibly match. 'There are politicians with sincerely held views who say that public money shouldn't be spent on projects like this. But I would say they are not taking the broader view. We are talking about sites that have remained derelict for 50 years in some cases. On the back of Urbis giving people a reason to visit, we must have leveraged another £400 million to £500 million into the area.

'If that was all public money you could ask questions about sustainability, but it's real private investment. When you look at the overall balance sheet, it's not a bad return for around £2 million a year of public money.'

Bloxham cites the 2002 Commonwealth Games as an important element in the renaissance. Indeed, so keen was the city to win after two failed Olympic bids that Bernstein's team came up with some of the most unlikely stats to be pressed into national service, apparently 'proving' that Manchester has less rainfall than arch-rival Sydney. What they made less of was the fact that the city also enjoys some of the highest crime rates outside London.

'Remember all the jokes before the games took place, about the shooting events being held in Moss Side, and all the running being away from the police?' says Bloxham. 'Well, Manchester really proved that it could make the games a success despite all that. In terms of numbers, they were irrelevant - more people go to see Manchester City every Saturday, never mind to see United. But they did provide a great opportunity to regenerate some of the most deprived areas of the city.'

Much of the Manchester upswing has been driven by the city-living trend, the fact that the middle classes - the 'mass wealthy' - now live, work and spend money in town, instead of following their parents out to leafy, affluent Cheshire suburbs such as Altrincham, Alderley Edge and Knutsford.

Obseves Howard Davies, MT columnist, director of the LSE and Manchester Grammar School old boy: 'They have learned from the academic work on the subject. The old idea that you regenerate by starting again with lower-density stock in a "nicer" environment simply doesn't work. You need to build reasonably high-density housing at various price levels in order to have enough people in the centre to maintain the bars, restaurants and shops that follow them, which are all small businesses providing jobs in their own right.'

And what shops they are! Where once the options were limited to local favourite department stores such as Lewis's, Kendall's or C&A, shoppers now find designer names such as Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Heals, Armani on their doorstep. The Mancunian's taste in motors has also shifted up several gears, if a car dealership to the south of the city centre is anything to go by. When I lived in the student residence opposite in the late '80s, this garage sold utilitarian boxes - Metros, Maestros and Montegos; now its forecourt is graced by rows of shining Ferraris, Maseratis and Jaguars.

Manchester's atmosphere has been transformed, too. An air of brash economic confidence is abroad in the city, the energy of deals being done and money being made. It's a feeling that must have been familiar to the city's wealthy founding fathers, but it's hard to imagine that this is the same place that spawned the angst-pop sounds of Joy Division and The Smiths only a generation back. Or the manic, druggy beats of the Stone Roses, house at the Hacienda club and the 'Mad fer it' Madchester culture that followed. As former Smiths frontman Morrissey complains in his song Heir Apparent: 'I came back to my old city ... and I couldn't find my way back to the station. It's all changed.'

But even the moaning Morrissey couldn't argue that the changes are for the worse. This is a city on the make, and local rivals are trailing badly as Manchester surges ahead, its sights set on a new international status.

'We're not trying to compete with London, which is out on its own and long may it remain so,' says Bernstein. 'But we do want to compete with successful European regional capitals like Barcelona, Lyons, Glasgow and Frankfurt.'

He must regard the historic scrap for regional dominance between Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool as well and truly won. 'Leeds and Liverpool are both important to the success of the north-west, but if you ask Leeds what the most important part of its promotional strategy to outside investors is, the answer is Manchester Airport.'

Manchester's own strategy is starting to do rather well. The city holds a majority stake in the revamped airport, from where you can fly direct from the city to Dubai, Istanbul, New York and Chicago, with Hong Kong apparently on the way, too. Royal Bank of Scotland CEO Fred Goodwin was standing at Bernstein's side for the opening of RBS's new regional HQ (the aforementioned 1 Spinningfields Square, a £13 million 'floating glass box' designed by Sheppard Robson) in the city centre. Bank of New York has also just signed up to move into Piccadilly Gardens on the other side of town. 'It was very important to win the Bank of New York deal,' says Bernstein. 'We'd been flirting with these major corporations since the '80s and had lost out a couple of times. It sends a real signal that Manchester is good enough to compete with the best European cities.'

The BBC has stated its intention to move 1,800 jobs from London to Manchester in the next few years, more than doubling its current presence in the city. And the city's inward investment agency, Midas, is also talking to the civil service about its relocation plans. The real jewel in the crown would be winning a major European corporate HQ pitch.

Even tourism is on the up. Buoyed by the games and the revived cultural life, Manchester is now apparently the third most popular European city break destination (several locals told me this, so it must be true). Plush hotels are springing up everywhere, ranging from the impressive 263-room, five-star Radisson Edwardian in the old Free Trade Hall to the small and seductive Great John Street Hotel, just opened.

This elegant 30-room boutique hotel is housed in a beautifully restored Victorian schoolhouse, but with rooms starting at £235 a night, Mancunian-heritage-meets-New-York-cool doesn't come cheap.

The daddy of all the new hotels will be the Hilton, set to occupy the bottom 20 or so floors of the 47-storey Beetham Tower. Due to top out in 2006, this will be the tallest residential tower in the UK and is already visible from miles beyond the city limits.

'Manchester now has critical mass in terms of leisure, sport and culture,' says Davies. 'The big venues - the City Stadium, the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester Art Gallery, the Lowry - have all been deliberately placed fairly close in and provide good reasons for people to be in the town centre. I take friends back from time to time, and for two or three days you can have a really good time - see a top-notch Halle concert, a bloody good game of football (he is a City fan), and have a great meal.'

For that great meal you might well end up at Yang Sing, a Chinatown institution. Opened by Jerry Yeung and his chef brother Harry in 1977, this is now one of the best (and best known) Chinese restaurants in the UK. Manchester's large and thriving Chinese community is always well represented among diners, and among the visitors are groups of Manchester United fans who journey from Ireland, Norway and even Hong Kong to see their red-shirted heroes play. Despite the club's recent change of ownership and lacklustre form on the pitch, United remains a huge draw, says Yeung.

'When there is a match on, you cannot get a room in any hotel.'

Yeung also plays the property market - the family owns the restaurant building, an ornate former warehouse on Princess Street, and his latest scheme is another boutique hotel, with an Oriental theme, to be built next door. He admits he didn't see the late '90s city-living boom coming, and has lingering doubts as to its long-term future. 'I still wonder who is buying all the apartments that keep getting built.'

Indeed, anyone who spends an afternoon walking around town must ask the same question. The central area is surrounded by new residential developments and there are many more nearing completion, such as the Beetham Tower and the 257-apartment Great Northern Tower at the south-eastern end of Deansgate. Most new flats are sold before they're finished, and the population of the city centre is predicted to double over the next few years.

The residential expansion has fuelled a retail boom, the retailers having spread into former business addresses like King Street and the businesses have spread in their turn. They move either into new developments such as Spinningfields (when complete in 2010, the 22-acre site will provide more than 250,000 sq m of office space) or into one of the city's numerous older office buildings, many of which have now been refurbished.

It's all an energetic game of musical chairs, and right now everyone involved seems too busy making money to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The sound and fury is impressive, but it masks the two great unanswered questions of the Manchester phenomenon: what will happen when the music stops and the stream of buyers dries to a trickle, and just how ugly will the consequences be when it does?

BUILDING A BOOMTOWN 1 Civil Justice Centre (2007) 2 Leftbank apartments (late 2005) 3 Guardian Manchester Evening News (2006) 4 Beetham Tower (2006) 5 1 Spinningfields Square (2004) 6 Printworks (2000) 7 M&S/Selfridges (1999) 8 Urbis (2002) 9 Arndale Centre, north (2006) 10 Radisson Edwardian, Free Trade Hall (2004) 11 GN Tower (2006) 12 Bridgewater Hall (1996)


c80 AD

Birth of the city Roman provincial Governor Agricola establishes a wooden fort near the area that later comes to be known as Castlefields. Named after the sandstone bluff on which it stands, the fort is christened Mamuciam, Latin for 'breast-shaped hill'. Plundered frequently after the Roman withdrawal in 410 AD, by 923 it is in West Saxon hands. The Church of St Mary - later to become Manchester Cathedral - is built there in the 10th century.

1700s Cottonopolis

The industrial revolution begins, and the spoils of 'King Cotton' turn Manchester into the world's first industrial city. The steep Pennine streams provide power for the textile mills, and the damp climate makes for high-quality cloth. The city dominates the international cotton trade for the next 170 years - the Royal Exchange, built in 1729, still controls more than 80% of the world trade in finished cloth at the beginning of the 20th century.

1900s Manufacturing powerhouse

The £15 million Ship Canal, opened in 1894 to circumvent Liverpool's harbour dues and link Manchester directly to the Irish Sea, revives the cotton trade. By 1914 it handles 5% of the nation's imports and 4% of its exports, and attracts modern manufacturing giants, including Ford, Kelloggs and Hovis, to set up shop in the Trafford Park industrial estate.

1948 Commercial decline, the birth of the computer

A new age dawns as wartime codebreaking genius Alan Turing designs the world's first programmable digital computer - called 'Baby' - while working at Manchester University. Meanwhile, the old order withers as the textile trade, facing increasing competition from cheap imports and man-made fibres, continues to decline. It is effectively extinct by the late 1970s.

Late 1980s Madchester scene

Emerging like a cultural phoenix from the ashes of post-industrial decay, the city's music scene - fuelled by bands such as Joy Division, The Smiths and The Fall - comes to national prominence. Clubs like the famous Hacienda and groups including the Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses briefly make Madchester the centre of the pop music universe. Meanwhile, within the City's ornate town hall, council bosses, including chief exec-to-be Howard Bernstein, create an ambitious plan to revitalise the rundown city.

1996 Arndale Centre bomb

The city centre is devastated by a 3,000lb IRA lorry bomb. There are no fatalities, but the blast injures more than 200 and destroys a million square feet of retail floorspace. Reconstruction costs nearly £1 billion and takes three-and-a-half years. It is a turning point in the city's fortunes. The new, ultra-modern Exchange Square area attracts Selfridges, Heals and Harvey Nichols and sparks a construction boom. Manchester's Halle Orchestra moves into its new home - the £32m Bridgewater Hall - in July of the same year.

2002 Commonwealth Games

The city stages the UK's largest sporting event since the 1948 Olympics. It generates more than £160 million in investment for venues, and the city estimates that 6,300 full-time jobs are created. Municipal income is boosted by £18 million and some of the most deprived areas in the east of the city are regenerated. The £90 million City of Manchester stadium, the focal point of the games, becomes home to Manchester City FC in 2003.

2004 Universities merge

The University of Manchester (one of the country's foremost redbrick universities) and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology merge with the aim of becoming one of the '25 strongest research universities in the world' by 2015. Royal Bank of Scotland opens a new regional HQ building at 1 Spinningfields Square and the Bank of New York signs up for the Piccadilly Gardens complex.

2006 Towering ahead

The £155 million, 47-storey Beetham Tower is scheduled to open. Comprising a 285-room Hilton hotel over the lower floors and 219 residential apartments above, it will be the tallest residential building in the country. The flats, priced at up to £750,000 each, are all but sold out a year before completion.

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