Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The City Debate and the future of Manchester

Hoo boy, is this a long post. But I had so much to say about FutureEverything’s City Debate last Friday, I just couldn’t restrain myself. For another perspective, I’ll point you in the direction of Inside The M60's coverage and blogger Sarah Hartley, who has a very interesting analysis. As a snotty aside, I also find it surprising that a serious debate about the future of Manchester with some pretty big bigshots held at Manchester Business School didn’t rate either coverage by the local press or participation from the city council (though Sir Howard Bernstein did record a video statement.) But what do I know?

Big props to FutureEverything for organising what was a very ambitious and largely successful event. The format was interesting, but I think there were simply too many people taking part. I'm sure this came out of a well-meaning desire to offer a really broad slate of views. And it was great that such a range of people were there. Unfortunately, having so many panelists made the event longer and slower to get down to brass tacks, as everyone read through their statements and responded to questions from a couple of specially-selected lead questioners. For me, it wasn’t until the questions were opened to the floor that things really got interesting.

Two big things I took away from the event: One is a growing sense of frustration from many of the people in the audience and even a few of us on the panel. For all the horn-tooting about the meteoric rise of the original modern city, the reality is that we’ve just seen a period of tremendous growth which seems to have completely passed by most of the people who live here, especially those in poorer outlying neighbourhoods. It was clear that that many of us would specifically like the people in charge to focus their innovating on making sure this doesn’t keep happening. Patsy Hodson of the Manchester Communication Academy currently being built in Harpurhey spoke especially well on this point, and she should know.

And the second is a sense that the wind is, at long last, shifting in the city. For years Manchester has been in thrall to property developers. But the boom is busted, and what we do in the future will be less about building and more about retrofitting. As a wise audience member pointed out, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Now that the cranes have stopped their seemingly-endless march across the city, let’s turn our attention to what we already have: acres of solid old industrial buildings and solid old housing that no-one’s using. And some of the housing isn’t even that old – I’d love to know how many of those new build “city living” flats are empty?

But many people are discovering that highly-marketed dream of city living ain’t all it's cracked up to be. As one CC resident pointed out at the debate: “I can get as many cappucinos as I want but I can’t find an NHS dentist.” Ever noticed a playground in the city centre? I haven’t. (But don’t get me started on park and green space provision in Manchester; we compare shamefully with every other major city I’ve ever lived in or visited. When is this going to become a priority?)

If you want to depress yourself, consider the number of long-term vacant housing units in the city (recently at more than 6,000 according to the MEN) alongside the waiting list for social housing in Manchester (this article in The Mule puts it at 23,000 a year ago). Then factor in all the houses and flats on the market people can’t afford to buy. Something isn’t working.

Meanwhile, commercial rents in the city centre are skyrocketing, and you know who can’t afford to pay them? The artists, inventors, writers, thinkers and makers who give this city its reputation for being a hub of innovation. We can’t all go and work in the Sharp Project. If the city really wants to encourage a culture of innovation and experimentation, how about fitting out some of these abandoned or derelict buildings as artist live/work spaces (see Islington Mill), community cultural/voluntary centres (Zion Arts), or technology workshops, places like MadLab which provide resources and networks as well as much-needed physical space in which digital/creative folks to do their thing.

I’m hopeful that good things will start to happen in this area. We are lucky in Manchester to have a progressive city council that has supported many innovative programmes in the past; bold ideas that often don’t get as much recognition as they should. What we need is for the city leaders to make this a priority, to devote money (even a little bit) and time and energy to these projects, to develop incentives for people to re-use. Wrangling in court with landlords to take possession of a derelict building for the common good, for example, isn’t glamorous work, but its becoming increasingly important work.

While they’re at it, they should have a think about some of the ideas that were bandied about during and after the debate: Green rooftops and vertical gardens growing food – reducing CO2 and hunger at the same time. Citywide free wifi (though I get the impression MDDA have already established that dog won’t hunt.) Developing the unloved canal network for a range of uses. Making Manchester really bike and pedestrian-friendly. And if something’s working well in another city – the free bikes or city-sanctioned artist squats of Paris, say – let’s not be shy about stealing those ideas.

And yes, I know it’s not that simple. I sure as hell don’t have all the answers to all the tough questions like where is the money going to come from and what if people don’t want to live/work in these old buildings and how much can the council actually do? I guess I’m just hoping we can start to talk about these things in a new way. And that this is a conversation we can all participate in.

(Photograph: E.O. Hoppe, Manchester 1925)


Susie said...

Here here, Kate - well put. I for one would love to see some of those empty shops and buildings handed over to the creative, entrepreneurial community. We don't want hand outs but we do need a leg up.

Tom said...

Apart from the post itself, thanks for the link to that article about that building in Brum, I used to live just round the corner and often wondered why the hell they were abandoned..

David Oates said...

Hi Kate,
I see no evidence that the city is really serious about the average resident. If it were it could do one thing which would have a massive impact on the city and it's people. Build social housing (or recommission empty stock) and lots of it.
Affordable, flexible, quality housing that doesn't force people onto the 9-5 treadmill for 40 years for the privilige of having a roof.

Then, all people who have low income jobs or want to live on low incomes (artists, musicians, parents that want to see their kids, writers, activists, conscientious objectors, part-timers, hobbyists, dog-walkers etc.) can do so without fear of repossession, homelessness and penury.

As for the shops idea, we don't need more government funded museums to hang stuff in, if anything we need fewer. Turn City Art Gallery into a social housing co-op. Hang the paintings in bars.

Kate Feld said...

David, thanks for your comment. Yeah, I agree that more social housing is desperately needed.

Just to be clear, I'm not proposing more art galleries, though - more like places where people can do cultural stuff. And I don't think the city should pay for them, just help them get started.

Vaughan said...

Excellent article Kate (apologies if this is double posted, please delete, my brain is playing up...)

ON some of your points--playground? The city centre will have one by end 2011. Or I'm resigning. We should have had one this sumer, but...

Green rooftops and gardens are central to CityCo's work over the next few years, lots more to come on these.

Waterways neglected? Well, they're a hell of a lot cleaner than they were five years ago, so that's a start. Waterways strategy to come soon we hope...

Parks? Disagree, they may not be huge, but the parks we have are lovely (Ardwick Green is just stunning). Even in the city centre, the small parks (Parsonage, Sackville) are gorgeous. Now, what we have to do is promote them and use them as family-friendly spaces. Again, we'll be starting to put that together this summer, at least in a small way.

And we, and MCC and lots of others would love to see shops used by artists. Everyone except the landlords who would lose rates exemption on empty properties, or the current lessee still paying rent. Or the letting agent trying to re-let the property.

Just as a minor point, up until early 2009, central government effectively stopped local municipalities building social housing. Lack of it is nothing to do with this or any other city's actions. Of course, the British 'pro-ownership' mentality is also a real problem.

Interestingly, this was prohibition was relaxed only two months after the crash, with Brown encouraging councils to borrow to build housing. Presumably, he had no idea what had caused the crash in the first place.

And Susie, love you dearly, but its 'hear hear', not 'here here'...(and, no, I'm not looking at how many spelling mistakes I've just made)

Kate Feld said...

Vaughan, thanks for your response. It's good to hear more about all of these things.

I'm glad to hear about the playground and plans to make the other little parks in the city centre more kid-friendly. CC residents, tourists, and people who spend a lot of time schlepping around the city with children will be delighted.

I still disagree about the amount of green space. Yes, if you look at GM as a whole we're not too shabby on parks, but the city centre lacks even one sizeable, centrally-located park and, for me, the little ones don't really make up for it. But hey, maybe Central Park just spoiled me.

We do desperately need more social housing, but I don't lay the blame for the lack of it at the council's door. You're right: we have Thatcher housing policy and the right to buy to thank for that. And it's great that MCC is finally building some new houses in Charlestown. We need it to become easier for councils to recommission empty stock, as David suggests. The system isn't working. But I have a feeling sorting it out isn't going to be high on the To Do list of the current govt. So, what else can we do?

And finally: I am not suggesting that we kick tenants out of shops and hand them over to artists. That would be very silly. Again, I'm not really talking about shops, but more larger, long-term vacant buildings (boarded up-pubs, old mills, warehouses, hospitals, fire stations etc.) that nobody is too interested in either renting, doing up or marketing. Most of them are in areas outside of the city centre where retail prospects are grim - often the same areas that need more cultural/voluntary stuff happening.

Rob Cutforth said...

On Vaughn's post re: Manchester green spaces and towpaths...

I can't believe anyone could say Manchester City Centre has nice parks. Sackville is "gorgeous"?! Good lord. Don't get me wrong, it's a nice little green area, I eat my lunch there every day, but I think "gorgeous" is pushing it. In fact, calling it a "park" at all is a bit rich; it's tiny!

And yes, the canal paths are clean (by English standards), but unless you have a bike with full suspension and a death wish, there is no way the average Mancunian could use the Bridgewater canal towpath for cycle commuting. I do, but I'm quite an experienced cyclist (and a bit nuts) and even I've come away with multiple bruises and broken spokes. Negotiating the "path" under the Cornbrook bridge is especially exciting. You only need to look a bit further south to see what needs to be done; Trafford are doing some very good work on their end of the same path.

my 2p.

David Oates said...

Official statistics show an estimated 13,000 homes are currently unoccupied in Manchester. Meanwhile, the waiting list published in June details more than 23,000 people waiting to be re-housed – an increase of 1,768 in 12 months.

Meanwhile over 13,000 homes in the City lie empty, and over 7,000 of those have been empty for over six months.

The council has been able to build social housing to alleviate this problem since early 2009. It's progress to date? It plans to build 32 new council houses. Yep, 32.

Kate Feld said...

David, thanks for those figures. I'd also be interested in seeing the numbers of new social housing units in Manchester built by housing associations with council support, or bought back, during that time period. I'd also be surprised if they don't have plans to build more social housing now that they can... anyone know?

Rob Cutforth said...

Sorry, I don't mean to go on about this, but I just visited the "stunning" Ardwick Green for the first time. Vaughan's comment in this blog was the first I'd ever heard of it. This surprised me as I work at Manchester University's North campus; Ardwick park is only a stone's throw away. How can it be possible that I had never heard of such a "stunning" park?

Simple. Because it's one of the most appalling city parks I have ever seen. It's tiny, there is as much asphalt on it as there is grass and it runs alongside the A6!

I am astonished anyone could say anything positive about it, let alone call it "stunning".

I don't mean to pick on you, Vaughan (I loved Urbis ;) ) but can you honestly say it's comparable to parks in other world class cities?

Vaughan said...

Maybe it was just a lovely day when I wandered through, but I think Ardwick Green is beautiful. Yes, its on the A6, but that only strengthens how beautiful it is. The planting is gorgeous.

Compared to other cities? No, our forefathers left art and buildings whereas Sheffield's left green land. But then Sheffield's galleries don't have much to compare to MAG...

And, no, we don't have a Stanley Park or a Central Park near the city centre. And we're not likely to get one...

You takes your whatever..

Lets all agree that greening is something we need to do more of!

(sorry, I've probably just double-posted)

Kieron Flanagan said...

Completely agree with all the comments about disenfranchised citizens. Also agree with all the comments about parks here. Actually it is not just an issue of parks but of open spaces more broadly. We did have plenty of open spaces, but rather than gardens or city squares, almost all of ours were WWII bomb sites, and most are or were used as surface car parks. Most of these have now been built on or are stalled development sites.

Couldn't NWDA with MCC (and the City of Salford) promote the temporary transfer of stalled development sites into usable public spaces? These agencies seriously underestimate the extent to which this aspect of the city deters inward investment and inward mobility of highly-skilled workers. A few good open spaces would be a better use of resources than some more hi tech incubators, and I say that as an 'expert' on the latter.

Anonymous said...

I think it was Peter Saville (in Corridor8 I think) who talked about the success of Manchester International Festival at establishing something that was innovative, world class and beneficial to the city. More interestingly though he made the claim that the International Festival model should be rolled out to cover other areas than art. He said we should have an International Festival for health, for housing or for employment. For commissioning world class, innovative programmes that are going to genuinely progressive and beneficial. It seems apt here.

Anonymous said...

By the way.

All the adverts and banners adorning the front of new city centre developments were covered with aspirant young models supping cappucinos and sitting on big sofas. I don't recall any with big pictures of a couple getting root canal surgery.

That wasn't the idea that was being sold. It was about an aspirant, social lifestyle not about access to key services.

I wouldn't start blaming other people that I'd just moved into an area that was lacking in services. I would have just checked myself before moving.

Kate Feld said...

Kireon, I think that's a great idea. It wouldn't take much to make these empty spaces usable and it would bring so much to the city - how many acres are lying unused and in limbo behind fences?

Kate Feld said...

This just in... Sarah Hartley over at the Mancunian way has just posted some new stats from a FOI request: the number of long-term vacant units in the city has now topped 9,000.


Anonymous said...

I blogged the event a bit differently, and drew the ire of Drew...


Kath Horwill said...

Hi Kate,
Your post, and the subsequent debate, really got me thinking about city centre park and playground provision. I'm usually the first to sing the praises of green spaces in Greater Manchester as you know, but I thought it was time I dedicated a post to city centre "parks". It's actually a bit longer than I thought it might be! I have to say though, that I don't think it's so unusual in this country to have parks on the periphery of the city, rather than in the centre. I'm from the West Midlands originally, and I can't think of anywhere there that has a "central" park.
My post is here, if anyone's interested. http://parklover.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/central-manchester-parks/
I've linked to you post, hope you don't mind.