Our Manchester – is community now more important than ever?

Tuesday, 6th October 2020

Guest blog written by Suzanne Benson, Partner – Trowers & Hamlins LLP

The growth and development of the city of Manchester has been firmly in the spotlight for the last few weeks thanks to the BBC documentary ‘Manctopia’. Filmed over the course of a year, the programme focused on the difficult juxtaposition between the proliferation of higher value homes (particularly high rise apartments) in the city centre set against the challenge of maintaining affordable housing and stability for lower income residents. As the fourth episode drew to a close, the programme makers did not really look to favour one side over the other but did draw out the common theme of community and its importance irrespective of the type of housing being provided.

At the same time, Manchester itself is carrying out a review of the Our Manchester Strategy and carrying out a citywide consultation on what the priorities for the city should be for the next 5 years. I am in the fortunate position of being a Business Representative on the Our Manchester Forum and over the last few weeks have taken part in a series of discussions considering what the new priorities for the city should be. The existing themes of carbon neutrality and improving health outcomes and access to work continue to be of prime importance but are now being considered in the context of the current COVID crisis and the likely impact of a resultant recession. The outlook for the city has undoubtedly become more challenging but there is still a desire to set some clear objectives to guide policy.

The question of how we build resilience in our communities and how we support a wide spectrum of people across the city and the surrounding regions underpins all of the discussions. This was also a key theme coming out of our YouGov survey last year – where the respondents were very clear in their view of Manchester’s identity and the importance of friends and neighbours in how they view the success of their city. It is likely that the impact of the ongoing lockdown restrictions will have served to increase the importance of local communities when people consider their own wellbeing.

What I found most interesting about the Manctopia programme as it progressed is that all the contributors were by and large saying the same thing. The long term residents of Collyhurst wanted to protect the community spirit they feel is at the heart of their estate. Although the imposing West Tower was presented as a threat to the more established communities, the view from L&G was that the nature of their investment meant that they want to build longer term community based schemes to support the pension fund’s need for stable, secure income. The ethos of Build to Rent is to provide more than just a place to live by focusing on community facilities and events which bring residents together. This is a marked shift from the historic UK rental market and Build to Rent developers see the creation of new communities as key to shifting our perception of renting to being a viable and attractive long term option.

The development of properties for sale – largely represented in the programme by Tim Heatley of Capital & Centric – was also superficially presented as the threat to the existing communities in Manchester. The more nuanced picture as the series developed however focused on his efforts to create new communities – often bringing back to life existing, largely derelict, buildings. The focus on selling houses for people to live in rather than for people to invest in, and finding ways to link up those purchasers, was presented as quite a unique approach to city centre development – but did prompt the question of whether it should be more prevalent.

The impact of COVID-19 on the way we live and work in Manchester is largely yet to be realised – it may be a transient period with minimal impact on the way our city functions in the long term or it may create some significant changes in dictating where we choose to live and work. It is however unlikely to really change the breadth of the market we have to cater for. A thriving city needs a housing provision for all parts of the market – from the higher end to those most in need and to cater for both homeowners and an increasingly important rental market.

Manchester has a real opportunity to create a multi-layered market with access points for different income levels – and to more effectively use some of the upside generated by high end development to fund more affordable housing. The recently launched search by the Northern Gateway partnership to find an affordable housing partner to provide around 800 new affordable homes as part of their development should provide an important opportunity to demonstrate how this can be achieved – and how attracting new investment of this type to the city can be a catalyst to improve the options for the full range of people wanting to live in the city.