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Manchester’s Fight for the City

The Court of Appeal has blocked a plan by Manchester City Council to build a 440-space car park on a site local activists are campaigning to turn into a green space – it could mark a turning point in the struggle for a city that works for all.

After the Mancunian Way—Manchester’s inner-city ring road—passes by the south of the city centre, it veers north, and thunders along Great Ancoats Street. Bounded to its left by the Northern Quarter and to its right by the district of Ancoats, this traffic artery is one of the Manchester’s most polluted roads, with NO2 levels breaching legal limits.

As it travels through this congested part of the city it passes by a 10.5-acre former retail park, situated next door to the only primary school in the city centre. For the last two years, this site has been at the heart of a ferocious battle between local residents and the City Council over its future.

Last week, this long-running fight took a twist as the Court of Appeal blocked the council’s plans to build a 440-space car park on the site. In his ruling, Judge Bird found that the council had failed to consider both the impact of the development on air quality in the local area and what effect a 440-space car park would have next to a primary school.

It was also found that council officers had ‘misled’ members of the planning committee by providing erroneous analysis of the air-quality impact of the proposals. This rendered the planning approval unlawful, and planning permission is now quashed.

This is the latest dramatic chapter in the ongoing conflict between the Labour-run council, which often appears to many in the city to act as the political arm of the property developers, and the residents, whose demands for more green space and affordable housing are growing louder.

The Campaign

The site was acquired in 2017 by Manchester City Council for £37 million. The council’s long-term plan was to develop it into high-density office space, in partnership with the Abu Dhabi United Group, a private equity firm owned by Sheikh Mansour, a key member of the Abu Dhabi royal family and owner of Manchester City Football Club.

This partnership has been subject to widespread criticism, both for the human rights record of Abu Dhabi, and for the fact that, as revealed by the Sunday Times, the council has offered preferential access to public land to the Group, selling it at knock-down prices on 999 year leases. In July 2019—on the same day it declared a ‘climate emergency’—the council announced plans for a temporary car park on the site.

In response to the plans, members of the surrounding community established a campaign, ‘Trees Not Cars’, and began to cohere opposition. Its lead organisers were two women, who had both experienced the detrimental effects of their neighbourhood’s high air pollution: Gemma Cameron—who since moving to the city from Nottingham in 2011 had felt her asthma getting worse, resulting in a first-time hospitalisation—and Julia Kovaliova, a mother of three children, two of which attend the primary school next to the site. Julia’s eldest, who is eleven, developed asthma five years ago.

To them and the scores of people who supported the campaign, the future of the site could be very different – with space for an inner-city park to address air quality, and carbon-neutral council housing to tackle Manchester’s growing housing crisis.

Trees Not Cars led a vibrant summer of action, amassing over 12,000 signatures on its petition, and holding regular demos and protests. They took direct action, digging up the concrete and planting saplings as a form of ‘guerrilla gardening’, and engaged architecture students at the University of Manchester to craft alternative proposals for the site. In September, the campaign drew strength as large climate mobilisations brought hundreds of people down to the site in opposition to the council’s plans. As well as the popular mobilisations, the campaign had the support of all three of the ward councillors.

The focus of the campaign was Manchester’s Planning Committee, whose members would have the power to reject the council’s plans – but when the critical vote came on 17 October 2019, the car park proposals passed by 7-3. The report given to the committee was the one found to be misleading in last week’s judgement; Trees Not Cars have also raised further questions of due process at this committee.

In a statement on their website, the campaigners note that ‘prior to the crucial planning meeting […]the Leader of the Council and Councillor Pat Karney wrote emails suggestive of seeking to influence the planning committee’s decision.’ Furthermore, in the days leading up to the meeting, Councillor Karney—the Labour Group Whip, Chair of the Constitutional and Nomination Committee, and Executive Member for the City Centre—reconstituted the planning committee. One of the councillors added to the committee on 8 October—a mere nine days before the decision was to be made—was Councillor John Flanagan, who had been part of an executive group that worked on the purchase of the site with the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2017.

Undeterred, the campaigners launched a judicial review. To defend itself, the council spent an estimated £70,000 on a team of lawyers led by Christopher Katakowski QC, a London-based barrister, said to be one of the leading planning specialists in the country. Notably, he is also an advisor to the government and a key architect of the its controversial new planning reforms.

But the council’s efforts were fruitless. According to Trees Not Cars, yesterday’s ruling was the first time that a community group had beat the council in a legal challenge over planning decisions. The Council’s defeat means they are now liable to the legal costs of the Trees Not Cars campaign as well, taking total public money spent by the council to fight a residents’ campaign group to over £100,000.

An Entrenched Problem

The fight over the future of the Central Retail Park is just one in a whole range of battles over planning and development that have defined Manchester in recent years. Many controversial proposals have attracted opposition from residents, campaigners, and ward councillors, but have ultimately approved by the planning committee.

Examples include the ‘Shudehill Shard’, a 17-storey apartment block in the Northern Quarter, approved in 2019; the Church Inn development, a 62-unit purpose-build student accommodation (PBSA) block on the site of one of the last remaining pubs in Hulme, approved in 2020; and, perhaps most controversially, plans for three co-living sites in Deansgate with well over 2000 beds in total. Despite a vigorous campaign, spearheaded by Greater Manchester Housing Action and ward councillors, and an initial rejection in September 2020, these proposals were brought back to the planning committee in October and went through.

Yesterday’s judgment will provide a much-needed boost to residents currently fighting further controversial proposals, both PBSA developments: the ‘Block the Block’ campaign against a 13-storey student block on the site of another old pub in Hulme, and the fight against ‘the Tombstone’, a 55-storey block at Mackintosh Village, just off the Oxford Road running south of the city centre. That last proposal has been criticised as a ‘botched’ application with questions raised in particular over the information provided to the planning committee by council officers concerning the building’s environmental sustainability.

But the fallout from this judgement could well be wider than battles over new controversial developments. Consider again the judgement’s findings — that the planning officers ‘materially misled the [committee] members on a matter bearing upon their decision.’ This calls into question the entire planning process in the city.

Jon Silver, an academic at the University of Sheffield and prominent campaigner in the city over housing and development, has called for an independent investigation into the planning process.

‘Evidence that emerged from the court process opens up questions about whether the planning process in Manchester is fit for purpose,’ Silver says. ‘We now urgently need an enquiry into these concerns about undue influence from senior councillors, ignoring important evidence and misleading the committee. We need to move to an open and democratic planning system that puts the needs of the many over those of the few.’

Gemma Cameron, organiser for Trees Not Cars, has gone further, calling on Sir Richard Leese to resign. ‘After a quarter of a century, we need a fresh, new council leader in touch with the people of Manchester. Someone who fosters a new culture in Town Hall where residents are considered allies, not enemies. Someone to fight our climate emergency and solve our housing crisis, making Manchester an affordable green city for all.’

Leese’s Council has consistently been at the cutting edge of neoliberal urban policy in Britain over the last 30 years, but the property-led growth model that he has driven may finally be reaching its political and practical limits. Residents in the city centre are now vocally demanding more public space and affordable housing — yet they find themselves running up against the powerful developer lobby, who need the space for speculative investments. With the rise of alternative forms of local government such as the ‘Preston’ and ‘Salford’ models, the question of how much longer Leese can hang on looms large.

Reflecting on his work on Manchester’s ‘New Ruins’ ten years on, Owen Hatherley wrote last year on the seeming immovability of the political cabal that has run Manchester since the 1990s — ‘they appear to think they are untouchable.’ Perhaps, as the movement against ‘Manctopia’ gathers pace, they may finally be dislodged.