Is Manchester becoming too much like London?
Manchester may have a reputation for playing by its own rules, but increasingly it is starting to resemble the capital – and not always in a good way
Ever since George Osborne dreamt up the Northern Powerhouse, Manchester has been in the national limelight, held up as a shining example to other cities as the sort of fully-fledged post-industrial revival the north has long been seeking.
As the city – and particularly the city centre – vies to compete with the capital, some of the boom signs associated with London are starting to materialise here, too: an explosion of new restaurants and bars, tower blocks that scrape the skies and even a new elected mayor.
But equally some of the capital’s high profile problems are making themselves felt too.
Mancs are being priced out
You’ll probably have seen the headlines this week about Londoners being driven out of the capital by an exponential growth in property prices.
Yet there are also glimmers of that here.
Manchester city centre is seeing a property boom that’s taken even the council by surprise. The town hall is expecting to bring in an extra £400,000 in planning fees next year just thanks to that growth.
But who are those apartments being built for?
Every town hall planning meeting sees councillors tear their hair out over the lack of affordable housing being proposed in new city centre blocks – as officers and developers argue on virtually every occasion that including a cheaper element would make it unviable.
Figures from Rightmove show the average sale price for a flat in the M1 postcode rose by 7pc just between April and September last year, to more than £188,000. And a great many are being marketed only to buy-to-let investors.
And it’s not just London that faces a dire shortage of new social housing. While the ten Greater Manchester authorities have declared an aim of 10,000 new homes a year, there is so far minimal talk of council homes within that.
On the same note, it isn’t just London that is being built on foreign money.
Much of the talk about the capital’s property boom this week has been over whether Russian oligarchs are to blame, having been overly courted by politicians.
We don’t have so many oligarchs of our own up here. But increasingly it is overseas cash fuelling the huge new commercial and residential developments shooting up in Manchester.
Chinese investors BCEG have a hand in both Gary Neville’s new development at Jackson’s Row and the expansion at Manchester airport, German giants Patrizia originally owned the First Street development before flogging it on to someone else, Hong Kong’s Peterson group are slated for a massive overhaul of the Great Northern on Deansgate and then – most significantly of all – the Abu Dhabi United Group are providing most of the the capital behind a £1bn expansion of new housing to the north and east of the city centre.
Is that a bad thing? Council chiefs would argue no. A city whose public sector has seen government cash dry up is now able to get things built – meaning growth, jobs and place for people to live.
But equally there are questions over who Manchester’s boom is going to profit, particularly as house prices continue to soar out of the reach of so many ordinary Mancunians – and the wages of people living in the city remain £78 a week lower than those who work in it.
As Londoners ponder the 83-storey ‘Paddington Pole’ colossus being planned by the people behind the Shard, Manchester’s own booming skyline is looking upwards too.
Beetham Tower architect Ian Simpson has spoken of a new ‘cluster of skyscrapers’ around the southern gateway of the city – and true to his word has drawn up plans for two new giants to rival the Hilton.
Not only is he proposing a sister tower for the Beetham, down the road near First Street, he also recently unveiled his vision for a massive 64-storey beast on nearby Great Jackson Street.
Meanwhile down the road at the old Granada Studios site, plans for a ‘vertical village’ by Allied London could also see at least one tower dwarf the Hilton.
Notably even Ian Simpson cautions that there may only so many that can be built before the next inevitable economic crash though, so they’d better get their skates on.
Everybody else hates us
It used to be that everyone much north of Watford hated London, down there with its soft southern ways and sense of entitlement.
But there’s a smug new kid on the block.
In recent years all national politicians have done is go on about Manchester, to the point that other northern cities must be looking on with increasing irritation as they are told to be more like us.
Closer to home, the city is not even always that popular with its Greater Manchester neighbours.
In recent months persistent complaints have swirled round outlying parts of the conurbation – particularly Rochdale, Oldham and Tameside – that Manchester is calling too many of the shots. That’s always been the case, but those complaints are growing louder.
New Oldham West MP Jim McMahon broke ranks in his maiden parliamentary speech last week, his first since leaving office as Oldham council leader, to hint strongly at just this.
“Devolution must be more than a love affair with big cities,” he said, a coded attack on those within Manchester town hall seen as focusing too much on shiny new things for the city – rather than the former mill towns to the north.
The painfully high profile poverty of rough sleeping used to be associated with the supposedly gilded pavements of central London.
Westminster council in particular has come under fire for shifting homeless people out into outlying boroughs (partly because of the housing market mentioned above) – but also for a range of measures that have caused public outcry, including a ban on soup kitchens.
In Manchester some would argue the town hall has been just as draconian, launching a court bid last year to shift a group of tents from its streets.
But the camp, with its relatively small group of protesters, was in some ways a distraction from the bigger problem: rough sleeping has gone up 10-fold in Manchester since the coalition took power.
Increasingly homeless people are moving out of the city centre and into the southern suburbs of Withington, Didsbury and Chorlton, signs that the problem is finding new ways to manifest itself.
Action is being taken by a council with dwindling resources, including opening dozens of new hostel beds and using empty public buildings as drop-ins.
Yet perhaps this is the visible downside of a London-style boom: it also proves to be a magnet for the destitute.
An obvious one, perhaps – but a symbolic parallel with London’s voice on the national stage.
The profile of Ken or Boris has been repeatedly used as an argument for Greater Manchester’s own new elected mayor, due to be introduced next year. That’s the idea, anyway.
So far public support has been pretty thin on the ground up here, not least because the last government confused matters by making cities hold mayoral referenda – which in Manchester came back as a ‘no’.
But like it or not, Greater Manchester is getting one.
The big question is whether that position is able to carry the same kind of clout afforded by the cartoonish characters that have so far held the reins in our capital and others around the world.
All the signs are that Labour – or possibly a charismatic independent – will probably win here in 2017.
But while the party nationally focuses its attention on London’s upcoming mayoral race, little thought seems to be going into ours.
Yet this could be make or break for a project that Manchester’s Labour hierarchy is just as invested in as George Osborne.
If Labour get the wrong candidate, or suffers a painfully low turnout, our mayor could end up merely whispering as London’s city hall continues to roar.
Manchester council won’t thank me for saying this, but memories of being stuck, not moving, on the bus down Charing Cross Road as a student have been looming ever larger in my mind of late.
The kind of city centre traffic seen in Manchester at the moment is reminiscent of pre-congestion charge gridlock in the capital, as a perfect storm of roadworks conspire to bring commuters to a halt.
Those roadworks are only temporary, obviously.
But while the town hall is keen to get people out of their cars and onto the tram, it’s hard to escape the sense that as more flats go up, the streets are inevitably going to get more congested.
Indeed several big new multi-storey car parks are being planned as part of big forthcoming development schemes, including on Oxford Road.
So even when those roadworks die down, the streets are surely only going to get busier.