By Owen Hatherley (@owenhatherley)
Over the weekend, a few items down on the headlines, below the pandemic and the protests and curfews in the US, was a story about a private Manchester high-rise called Skyline Central. This is one of dozens of speculative 'luxury flats' built in the centres of Manchester and Salford during the 2000s. Like so many towers of that era, Skyline Central is coated in flammable cladding that would be illegal in many countries; accordingly, it was assumed to be eligible for the special budget for cladding removal instituted in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster. But due to the complex nature of the way that budget is apportioned, Skyline Central won't get any of it, and the leaseholders of its flats will each have to individually fork out five-figure sums to ensure that the flat they live in is fit for human habitation. It is petty of me, but as soon as I saw the story, I thought 'oh my god, it's one of the 'New Ruins''.
Around ten years ago, I published my second book; it was one of two that were based on 'Urban Trawl', a regular feature for the architecture trade paper Building Design, which they'd offered me after reading a post on my blog about Southampton, my home town. 'Urban Trawl' ran from 2009 to 2012, and was discontinued when most of BD's staff were dismissed, as its owners, United Business Media, decided to run it as a forum for job advertisements, press releases and the promotion of their trade conference Ecobuild, with 'journalism' considered a superfluous luxury. The title of the first of the two books, which Rowan Wilson at Verso came up with after I'd failed to think of one, was A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. It covered eleven towns and cities and one London borough, but the centrepiece, the places I'd become most obsessed with and returned to constantly, consisted of Sheffield – where the 'ruins' in question referred to its impressive legacy of post-war socialist planning, then being gutted by 'regeneration' – and Manchester, which I ended up seeing as a kind of New Labour flagship city, the place totally rebuilt to the point of unrecognisability in the image of Blairism by a strange 'post-rave urban growth coalition' of ex-modernists, ex-Situationists, ex-punks and ex-socialists. Here the 'new ruins' were the cheaply thrown-up 'stunning developments' of 'New Emerging Manchester', which it didn't take a genius to predict would soon end up looking pretty shabby.
After the 'Urban Trawl' of Manchester for BD and a follow-up piece on the post-punk legacy in the New Labour city for the short-lived music journal Loops, various people got in touch with me to add gossip and stories and further examples, far more than anywhere else I would ever write about. Some of this was printable, some of it, particularly on the pre-property development career of Urban Splash supremo Tom Bloxham, very much wasn't. A broadsheet architecture critic visited Bloxham in his 'bubble house' in the South of France as part of the annual MIPIM property fair, where he held court with then-head of the Homes and Communities Agency Sir Bob Kerslake; the critic emailed me the photographs suggesting that the local press in Manchester and Sheffield might be interested to know where the public money went. No papers in either city were interested in the pictures, which I eventually gave to the Salford Star.
The centres of Manchester and Salford had, it was clear, been completely reconceptualised as hubs for property development and consumption, with 'culture' a distant third – between the first and second draft of the book, Urbis went from being an ambitious if unsuccessful museum of urban history to being the new home of the National Football Museum, previously housed in Preston, then considered a depressed provincial town of little significance. There was shopping everywhere, of course, but mostly there were towers, towers, towers, all of them private, all of them within a square mile of Manchester Town Hall, but on both sides of the Irwell. The towers were an instantly recognisable typology. Unlike in London, where the tallest buildings are offices and banks, these were all residential – curiously, the newly-built office buildings and banks of Manchester, at Spinningfields and Piccadilly Gardens, were low-rise.
Skyline Central is a classic example, with its wonky glass protrusion, its (now discoloured) bright cladding, and its goofy irregularity. Unlike post-war towers, the new ruins were dense, crammed into small sites; the flats inside were usually tiny, as in the Salford 'Dovecot Towers' that Penny Anderson lived in and wrote about brilliantly and scathingly in her blog Renter Girl; they were all private, obviously; and in architectural form, they were all distinctive, usually with swoopy rooftops that resembled a sort of architectural quiff. The Bradfordian photographer Joel Anderson, who came with me on the research trips for the articles and the book, called these 'Blair Hats'. Cladding seemed to be of overpowering importance in these towers. Everything was covered in it. Slatted wood, trespa, plastic, terracotta, and various kinds of ticky-tacky in irregular 'barcode facades', breaking with a modernist approach where you could see what a building was made of on its facade. These seemed in part a reaction to more stringent regulations on insulation, but as we now know the builders were radically unconcerned with the safety of residents, it can't have been just this. Mostly, the cladding and the hats had a role of signification – that is, of saying loudly to passers-by I AM NOT A COUNCIL TOWER BLOCK. The ultimate edifice was the Beetham Tower, the tallest building in the country outside London, one half hotel, one half luxury apartments; in a BBC video made at the time its architect, Ian Simpson, strutted around the olive grove he'd installed in his penthouse flat, intoning 'it is aspirational'.
Many people in Manchester – including many critics – had ambiguous views about this process. The basic plan had been to repopulate the city centre (not that this had ever really been a residential area), and that didn't involve dispossessing anyone as such, though obviously rents and house-prices rose in the immediate vicinity; there was a general agreement that this was necessary, although perhaps not in quite so brash and obnoxious a fashion. But it wasn't enough to just build inner-urban 'city living' for a middle class that previously lived in the suburbs, to construct a high-rise Cheshire for footballers and moguls in amongst (and often of course, in) the old warehouses and mills. The working class housing built by an earlier generation would soon prove to be fair game. Specialists in this were Urban Splash, a developer who, while by no means the largest in Manchester (at the time, this was probably the office developer Bruntwood's, whose logo features all over the city centre) were the most persistently newsworthy, due to the ambition and quirkiness of their projects. Urban Splash stylised themselves as the chic, post-punk property developer, the Bauhaus or Factory Records if they sold lofts. In retrospect, their redevelopment (they were given the estates gratis) of two council estates just beyond the inner ring road, the Cardroom Estate in Ancoats and the 'Three Towers' in Collyhurst, can be explained more by government largesse than by ethos. Urban Splash have been heavily reliant on government grants and deals with Housing Associations, without which they would almost undoubtedly have gone bust after the crash of 2008. Rebuilding council estates opened up access to a revenue stream for good deeds that otherwise they would never have received.
Unlike their later work on listed modernist buildings in Sheffield, Bristol, Morecambe and Plymouth, neither the Cardroom or the Towers were ever likely to win any awards for design. The Cardroom was a dour low-rise estate built after the crisis of confidence that hit modern architects in the 70s, while the Towers were three ordinary, standardised council blocks. Both had become fairly depopulated, and had long been hard to let. This fact meant that it was easy for Urban Splash to transform them into private enclaves – though a photogenic pair of streets in the Cardroom by the architects FAT was built as social housing for those tenants who wanted to stay in the area. The three towers became private luxury flats, covered in shiny cladding, which were renamed after the three Pankhurst sisters, Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia, the latter of whom was of course a founder of the Communist Party of Great Britain – Urban Splash excelled at selling neoliberalism as radicalism. The Cardroom was intended to become a series of houses on canals designed by resident-investors, which was to be called 'Tutti Frutti'. This, despite several articles and programmes about it, never actually happened, but what did was a long block by the late Will Alsop, called 'Chips', because the plan was apparently inspired by 'chips on a plate'; this is the North, and people eat chips there. In 2018 it was featured in the local and national press as the most prominent of many private blocks to be covered in 'Grenfell-style cladding'.
As would have been easy to predict, one effect of the rising property prices and growing precarity in Manchester was that more people needed council housing; but rather than it being renovated and extended, it was being demolished or literally emptied out to be refilled by middle class homeowners. In 2010, around the time that Urban Splash received a government bailout, one of its bosses, Nick Johnson, was asked at a public panel discussion what he thought about a possible return of local authority-employed architects and council housing. 'I would no more trust a local authority architect to design me a house', he quipped, shaking his Oasis-style feather-cut as his company redeveloped Manchester's council estates, 'than I would trust a local authority hairdresser to cut my hair'.
This arrogance was all-pervasive, even when the shells of the buildings themselves were retained. In a breathtaking example of taking coals to Newcastle, Urban Splash took advantage of the New Labour government's Pathfinder scheme, where areas of 'low demand' were subjected to 'housing market renewal' through the demolition of large swathes of Victorian stock in order to make housing more scarce, and hence more expensive (you think I'm joking? Look it up) at an area of Salford they rebranded as 'Chimney Pot Park'. With the brick facades retained as a form of historic cladding and new steel-framed modernist pads inserted behind, now you too could own a two-up two-down in Salford! The MP for Salford, Hazel Blears, boasted of having enlisted Urban Splash to 'save' these streets, previously derelict and tinned-up as a result of the Pathfinder programme, by rebuilding them to become the open-plan homes of BBC workers. Elsewhere in Salford, I focused on the stark post-war urbanism of Pendleton, with its high, wide, repetitious blocks alongside a dual carriageway. Still inhabited and popular with students at the adjacent University of Salford, these blocks were not gutted and given to the 'aspirational', but were instead reclad in what proved, again, to be 'Grenfell-style' cladding. It is macabre to point it out, but it was incredibly lucky for the Labour Party that the first council tower wrapped in lethal materials to actually burn was in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the two or three Conservative-governed inner city areas in Britain. It could have been Salford.
Given that a lot of what I was writing drew on work that was already being done by the Manchester Mule and the Salford Star, I was surprised by the amount of attention it received – I ended up making a short film for the Guardian about Manchester, and was not long after invited to a specially planned panel about Manchester and 'regeneration' at MMU, alongside Ian Simpson and the long-established kingpin of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese, then fresh from his night in the cells for beating up his stepdaughter, with Dave Haslam as the chair. It was an intimidating event, and I expected what I got. After my spiel, where I listed most of the things above, a bomber-jacketed Leese cried 'I've never heard such a load of old bollocks in my life', and compared me to those journalists from London who come up to Manchester and claim it's infested with knives and guns. What I didn't expect was for the first question from Haslam, the chair, to begin 'what I think you've got wrong, Owen, is...' Leese came up to me afterwards, cackled, and told me I was brave; in the pub after, an MMU lecturer told me the entire thing had been planned as a 'stitch-up' from the start to expose me to public ridicule.
This wasn't the only reason why I didn't go back there much after that; once a year or so I might come in to do an odd bit of teaching, to see an exhibition, or, for instance, to take part in the Spring conference in early 2016, but I would never linger in Manchester. I did notice that a block of privatised, socially cleansed council flats named after a founder of the CPGB had been joined by a Soviet statue of Engels on a privately-owned and patrolled public space in Manchester's pantheon of what I suppose we could call 'Leftwashing'. In A Guide to the New Ruins I had described New Labour Manchester as a 'finished project', one that had begun with the IRA bomb in the Arndale in 1996 and ended in 2008 with the financial crisis, and I assessed it on that basis. But a week-long visit in spring 2019 showed that I was very wrong about this. Like London, Manchester had not stopped. There were ten or so new towers, all again private, all again with small flats on tiny plots, this time designed in a more sober corporate modernist style, with less pink and lime green and without the 'Blair Hats' on top. Most of the cities (as opposed to London boroughs) I'd profiled in the two 'Urban Trawl' books have seen extremely little development since 2012 – mostly, as in Birmingham, what development there is consists of completing delayed projects of the 2000s, and dereliction dominates town centres across the country. There are two major exceptions – Preston, which was the focus of the follow up, A New Kind of Bleak, which transformed from a self-hating place bent on demolishing half of its centre to please developers (who proved not to be interested), into a showcase of 'community wealth building', a kind of craft beer social democracy; and Manchester, where neoliberalism never ended, and austerity's traces can only be found outside the ring-road.
The fact that Manchester now resembled London so much was not an accident but was a product of the way that the 'Northern Powerhouse' deal cooked up between George Osborne and Richard Leese treated Manchester a sort of miniaturised version of the capital. Leese and Osborne presumably looked at the way that Edinburgh and Cardiff had managed, even despite the crisis, to have their own successful economies based on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate – and Manchester would have the same role for a very partially devolved North. Just as in London, footloose international capital made jumpy by wars and global political lurches was encouraged to plough it into the safe haven of 30-storey safety deposit boxes. No new council housing was built, even though the need increased even more sharply. The Beetham Tower was now supplemented by several new, much duller towers by Ian Simpson, in a sort of austerity version of the boom's aspirational architecture.
In the Corbyn era, you might well have expected there to be a reckoning, given how much Manchester was a citadel of New Labour, given how much radicalisation had happened in the city during the austerity years, and given how much Manchester City Council cosied up to George Osborne as his policies decimated local government across Britain. Yet, again as in London, it never quite happened. Salford was a partial exception, as Hazel Blears' seat fell to Rebecca Long-Bailey and the council shifted to building council housing and replacing outsourcing with 'community wealth building'. But the same people who ran Manchester itself in the Blair era – who have run it since the 1980s, fundamentally – are all still there. Their legacy is the repopulation of the city centre, the enormous inflation of housing costs, the dearth of social housing, and an obsession with cost-cutting and 'the market knows best' that meant developers were left to wrap concrete frames in flammable plastics. I'm sure that retirement beckons, and they'll be quite sure to make sure to install a successor generation who believe in the same things. Financial crisis, mass socialist movement, Brexit, pandemic – none of it has been allowed to affect Manchester's growth coalition. They appear to think they are untouchable. I hope that they are proven wrong
Owen Hatherley is the author of several books on architecture and political aesthetics, and the culture editor of Tribune.
4 June 2020