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Against the Manchester Model

The last 20 years have seen Manchester become the poster city of neoliberal urbanism with a dressing of radical chic. It's time to consider how we got here – and how we take it back from the developers.

One essential text for anyone with a serious interest in understanding the transformation of the city is a book, City of Revolution, edited by the urban geographers Jamie Peck and Kevin Ward. (Zach Rowlandson / Getty Images)

There is something feverish about Manchester right now. After two years in which the city centre emptied, shops shuttered and everyone stayed home, everything has roared back to life. Only it feels different—busier, more frantic. The churn of new businesses, the parade of new city centre residents, the bars packed till closing time. While many things paused during the years of lockdown, something kept going and going—the city’s property development boom. In two years, the skyline changed and thousands of new rental apartments came online. Yet, despite these new housing ‘units’, the city’s housing crisis is only getting worse. In 2021, rents in the private sector were up nearly 24%. Homelessness and temporary accommodation are rocketing, while 13,000 wait for social housing. Out in the working-class districts, the slow violence of rent hikes and evictions grind on as rapacious landlords make up for lost time, cashing in on inflated property values or switching their assets into the lucrative short term lettings market.

While the city is under new leadership—with Bev Craig taking over from the long-serving Richard Leese in December 2021, after a narrow win over rival Luthfur Rahman—evidence that this marks a change in direction seems patchy. While there has been a new housing strategy announced, with an expanded role for social housing, and the leadership seems more willing to engage with critics than previously, hopes that something dramatic would change were dashed at the end of July when the planning committee voted through a second skyscraper in the Ancoats district, despite major local opposition and earlier rejection. And with every new yuppie bar opening, some with zany quirks like the phallic waffle shop; and every new outrage—like the razor-thin 26 storey tower proposed on a carpark next to the Britons Protection, a Peterloo-era pub—a feeling stirs among the city’s people; one articulated by Mark E. Smith back in 2008: ‘somebody’s murdered Manchester and not told me. Somebody’s taken it to the dogs, ripped from it a history.’

But who is this somebody? And a further question: how did we get to this point? Finding the answers to these questions can be difficult. While the city’s bookshops don’t lack for works on Manchester’s football and or musical history, and writings on Manchester’s industrial history remain popular; there is a notable lack of critical analysis of the political economy of the city. Given the transformation of the city over the last 40 years this fact is surprising, to say the least. However, one essential text for anyone with a serious interest in understanding the transformation of the city is a book, City of Revolution, edited by the urban geographers Jamie Peck and Kevin Ward. The work, consisting of a series of scholarly essays, unpacks Manchester’s experience of neoliberal urbanism. It is now 20 years since its publication, and that, combined with the change of leadership in Manchester, makes today a useful time to revisit it.

The Shock City

City of Revolution follows three broad lines of enquiry. First, an exploration of the context in which this turn happened; political, administrative and economic. Second, unpacking the proliferation of the public-private partnership model and examining the specificities of it on a neighbourhood level. Finally, the work is infused with broader political questions of the trajectory of the city—the winners, losers; and the rank hypocrisy which hangs about the ‘Manchester miracle’. While many have undoubtedly benefited from the changes, its corollary has been uneven development, economic polarisation, and social inequality. To claim the 40 year experiment is a success is to wildly privilege one perspective over the other.

Since the 1980s, Manchester has rebuilt itself upon the ruins of a world-city. That city, as the historian Asa Briggs identified, was the original ‘shock city’ of the industrial age. From the late eighteenth century, Manchester rose from not much more than a small market town situated upon raised ground above the river Irwell to become the industrial apex of a transatlantic empire of cotton. Its wealth was drawn from slave labour in the plantations of the Americas and the industrial proletariat of the city itself, sucked in from the surrounding countryside and the colony of Ireland to work in the mines and mills. Surrounding it was a complex industrial region built to handle a wide range of commodities; cotton and cloth production but also shipping, mining, engineering and metallurgy.

This economy produced a particular geography, which remains to this day. At the heart of the industrial zone was the central urban conglomeration of Manchester and Salford. An industrialised core, dominated by factories, warehouses and the command centres of merchant, financial and insurance companies; ringed by poor quality housing for the working class, with the wealthy bourgeois suburbs to the south. In the wider region—today’s ‘Greater Manchester’—rose a set of specialised factory towns, each serving as distinct nodes within the totality of an integrated industrial zone anchored by the unprecedented urbanisation of Manchester itself. Writing in the 1840s, Engels observed that ‘there is no city in the world where the distance between the rich and the poor is so great, or the barrier between them so difficult to be crossed.’

Industrialisation also created a particular politics—or more accurately, two competing political traditions. On the one hand was the working class tradition of at times vigorous social reform, at other times outright sedition. Chartism, industrial syndicalism, socialism, communism, suffragism, black radicalism and anti-imperialism can all trace powerful histories within Manchester. It is this history that is often deployed rhetorically at least in portrayals of Manchester as the archetypal ‘radical’ city. Yet, this tradition had its mirror. Manchester the shock city had a distinct politics too. One of laissez faire, of colonialism, anti-Corn Law liberalism; Manchester Men and Indian Cotton; Bright, Cobden and Gladstone—the latter who owed his family’s wealth to some of the most extensive sugar plantations in Jamaica and Guyana. It is these two souls of Manchester which would see themselves repeated again and again across the city’s history.

By the early twentieth century, the reformist wing of the working and middle classes had gained power through the Labour movement. Across the next half century, a vigorous programme of social reform was pursued by the local government. This raised the standards for the working class of the city through public services, public works and mass council house building. Although corporatist and top-down in its nature, the municipality made great strides in ensuring its citizens were adequately housed and had access to a wide range of services. The interwar council estates of South Manchester, including the Garden City inspired projects of Wythenshawe and Burnage provided high quality ‘workers cottages’ across the suburbs. In part, these projects were launched as a route out of the Great Depression. The postwar social democratic settlement saw this further expanded, and council housing built on a mass scale. But by the end of the 1960s, budgetary constraints saw the quality of these projects begin to decline, and the arrival of system-built housing, most notably in Hulme and Ardwick. Still, there was a consistent push by the Council to provide foundational services for the City and its peoples—reflected in the land holdings of the Council, which by the end of the 1970s stood at almost 60% of the city’s total area.

The heyday of the industrial city lasted well into the twentieth century—in 1959, over half of the entire working population of Greater Manchester still worked in manufacturing. From the 60s onwards was a dramatic period of sliding economic decline. While ultimately these transformations had their roots in the shifting contours of the global economy, the impact on Manchester was stark. One contribution to City of Revolution outlines just how staggering this collapse was. Between 1962 and 1972 Manchester lost a little over 30,000 manufacturing jobs. Between 1971 and 1981 a further 75,000 jobs were lost in manufacturing, and between 1981 to 1997 39,000 more were lost. Across the last four decades of the twentieth century, around 144,000 jobs in manufacturing were lost. While in parallel to this there was a growth in employment in sectors including public administration, transport and services, it was not sufficient to counteract the loss of industrial employment. And so, by the turn of the millennium, the shock that accompanied the violent birth of the world’s first industrial city found its mirror in its dramatic death.

The New Left Turns Right

In the face of these tectonic shifts, new political forces emerged to attempt to map a way out of the crisis of the 1970s. Deindustrialisation had weakened the power of the syndicalist trade unions that had for decades effectively run the industrial districts of the city. The widespread disillusionment that followed Wilson’s first term in office led to a slump of support for Labour, and in 1967 for the first and only time the Conservatives took control of the City Council. In response to these crises came the rise of the municipal New Left. In recent years, work has been done to excavate and uphold the experiences of the municipal New Left, but the exploration of Manchester’s experience as part of this moment has remained largely hidden from view.

Yet while in London and Sheffield the left would take power at the start of the 1980s, in Manchester the left remained in internal opposition to the old guard of the Labour group until 1984. This simmering generational conflict between a cadre of young councillors led by Graham Stringer and Pat Karney and the leadership of the council broke out into the open when in 1980 thirteen councillors were expelled from the Labour Group for refusing to back a £13 million cuts programme. They then spent a period of four years in ‘exile’ operating as an independent Left Caucus on the Council—while the council Labour leadership relied on the votes of Tories in opposition to set the city’s budget.

This period in exile was, as Hilary Wainwright noted, a productive one. Working with Left activists within City Party, and building alliances with the public-sector unions and campaigns in the city around housing, women’s and gay liberation, and racial justice, the New Left grew in strength throughout the next four years. Through assorted campaign methods including rallies, street theatre and use of local radio stations, the left bloc made the case against the cuts and grew in strength—to the point where in 1984 it gained majority control within the Labour group.

For a time the leadership pursued a strategy of confrontation with the central government, as well as enacting a vigorous programme in the city itself to bolster the range of social issues that had brought the Left to power within the party: extending gay and women’s rights, working to reign in police power, and attempting to devolve democratic decision-making to local neighbourhoods. Rhetorically at least the Council was committed to a socialist economic strategy. The think tank CLES, which would later become famous for being a mainstay of the ‘Community Wealth Building’ agenda, was founded in this period by the Council. Yet much of this was predicated on holding for a Labour victory in 1987. When Thatcher won for a third time, Stringer and the Council leadership performed a dramatic u-turn. In a letter to Nicholas Ridley, then Secretary of State for the Environment, sent the day after the election, Stringer said effectively, ‘you win. We are ready to work with you’. From this point, it was the same leadership which drove forward an entrepreneurial strategy for regional development.

In City of Revolution, the story of the rise and crisis of the New Left is outlined in a chapter by Stephen Quilley. Despite the seeming political u-turn in 1987 from a form of municipal socialism to urban entrepreneurialism, Quilley is clear: the entrepreneurial city was a Labour-driven project. However, the continuities between the early New Left takeover of the Council—most strikingly in the figure of Pat Karney, who remains an influential Councillor today—and the entrepreneurial local authority from the 1990s onwards also mask a real political conflict and decision that was taken at this time, away from confrontation and towards conciliation both with national government and private enterprise. In short, sections of the left had to be defeated in order to make way for the about-face in the city’s direction.

The embrace of ‘entrepreneurialism’ was powered by new governance arrangements, which Brian Robson, in his chapter, identifies as having three core elements. First was the development of a ‘vision’ for the city. This vision accepted implicitly a schema of individual cities competing on a national and global stage for investment and attention. It was intent on hauling Manchester up the chain of competitive major cities across Britain and Europe. It relied upon the city leveraging its assets—its research-heavy university base, the city centre, the airport, and the historic excellence of the city in the field of sport, music and culture—mixed with a boosterish discourse to leverage inward investment into the city.

Second, the creation of a distinctive mechanism for the delivery of urban regeneration. The period after 1987 saw the proliferation of the public-private partnership in the specific form of an arms-length delivery vehicle, separate from the Council but serviced by a dedicated team of officers seconded from it. Quick decision making and a core role for the private sector were its hallmarks. So too was the intention of the city leadership to expand the regeneration agenda progressively from one geography to another. We see this sort of institutional arrangement repeated again and again, from initial experiments in the case of Hulme’s 1990s ‘City Challenge’ regeneration, to the aftermath of the 1996 bomb for the City Centre, and again in the 2000s in the regeneration of East Manchester. Undergirding the delivery vehicles was the final plank of the Manchester Model: a dense lattice of informal networks tying together figures within the commercial sectors and local government. Jamie Peck had argued elsewhere that these networks represented a return of the ‘Manchester Men’, local private sector notables, operating in concert through organised fora like the North West Business Leadership Team to exert influence in the city’s politics and strategic direction—much as their nineteeth-century industrialist forebears had done.

What marks City of Revolution out above all is its critical perspective. In her contribution to the book, Rosemary Mellor, following Engels, explores the concept of the ‘hypocritical city’. Here she argues that patterns of spatial segregation by class, historically always a feature of the city, had become a critical function of urban development and growth in the neoliberal era. The relationship between the commercial and industrial centre and the ring of working class housing surrounding it, in the inner city, was broken by the regeneration—which was predicated upon the expulsion of the urban poor from the city centre, and the creation of parallel worlds made safe for middle class consumption.

Engels remains the classic commentator on Manchester, and much of his analysis remains relevant to our age. He noted with acuity its peculiar social geography. ‘In Manchester,’ he wrote, ‘a person may live for years and go in and out daily without every coming into contact with a working people’s quarter, or even with workers, that is so long as he confines himself to his business or pleasure walks.’ As noted, the working classes were confined to a dense girdle of overcrowded housing that ringed the commercial core of the city. The bourgeoisie were situated beyond that, their social status dictating the distances they lived from the popular districts. ‘The finest parts of this arrangement?’ he asked. Simply, ‘that the members of the money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the labouring districts without ever seeing they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and left.’

Twenty Years On

Perhaps the most striking single continuity since 2002 has been the stability and longevity of Manchester’s political leadership.  Then, it was impossible to foresee just how far into the future the city’s leadership would endure. In 2002, Richard Leese had been in post as leader of Manchester City Council for just over five years, while the freshly minted Chief Executive, Howard Bernstein, was just over three years in post. They would remain in their positions for a further 19 and 15 years respectively. This political leadership was crucial to the particular development trajectory of the city; and in particular their shared article of faith that the entrepreneurial model of urban governance was the only game in town.

The immediate years following the book’s publication were characterised by the roll out of a now well-worn set of policy tools—public-private partnerships, arms-length delivery vehicles, competitive bidding for central government funding—across the city, starting with East Manchester, once the heart of the city’s industrial district. These tools—honed in Manchester—became the favoured methods of urban regeneration by the New Labour government, with Manchester looked upon as a favoured council and a model for other cities to emulate.

In parallel to the state-led efforts to regenerate decaying industrial zones, was a concerted effort to tap into what was in the mid-2000s the trend of the day among urban policymakers—the ‘creative class’. This concept, drawn from the work of neoliberal booster Richard Florida, argued that if cities were to compete globally, they would need to be attractive to a class of people in professions as wide and varied and ‘scientists, poets, actors, writers, finance, legal, healthcare and wealth management’—a menagerie which he gave the overall title as representatives of the creative class. Manchester was praised by Florida himself in 2003 as the UK’s most ‘creative’ and ‘enterprising’ city.

This half decade to the financial crisis was marked by the continuation of a growth regime that had been forged in the late 1980s and 1990s, grounded in the belief that economic success would lead to a decline in social exclusion. Yet, the data collected on the eve of the crisis demonstrated that result had been in many cases the opposite—that the city’s growth model had resulted in stark patterns of uneven development, with two Manchesters—one rich, one poor—rubbing up against one another but rarely crossing, much as had been the case in Engels’ day. Two reports published in 2009 which examined social deprivation across the city showed extreme polarisation of wealth and poverty; with one—by Centre for Cities—showing that of 56 English cities studied, Manchester was the most unequal in terms of gap between rich and poor.

The city’s uneven development, a patchy and incomplete response to the catastrophe of deindustrialisation, would receive its most severe challenge yet with the onset of the global financial crisis. The immediate effects of the crash on the city’s property market—the mainstay of its economic engine—were dramatic. In 2008 house prices fell by 10%, with a 8% fall concentrated in the final quarter. In the speculative apartments market, the decline was even greater—15% in the city centre, and up to 30% in the north of the conurbation. Overall, sales were down by 75% by 2009 from their peak in 2006-7.

But by the middle of the 2010s Manchester’s property boom would restart. One metric to track the revival of the Manchester model is the population of the City Centre. In 2010, its population stood at just over 11,000. In 2015 its population was around 25,000, and just four years later, in 2019, over 60,000 people called the city centre home. Current predictions show it surpassing the 100,000 residents mark by 2024. These figures are astonishing, and they beg one obvious question. How did this revival of fortunes occur? Answers to this question can be found in the body of critical analytical literature that has emerged over the last five years in the city tracking and critiquing Manchester’s property boom.

Over the last five years, a body of critical literature around the campaign group Greater Manchester Housing Action has been produced which tracks and critiques this post-crash revival of the city’s property-led regeneration model. A series of critical reports by researchers like Tom Gillespie and Jonathan Silver, in particular From Homes to Assets and Who Owns the City? were widely covered in the local media, and discussed among backbench councillors, in public meetings and within Labour Party branches. The picture that emerges from this body of work shows a council which, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, took a very simple line: the property boom had to be restarted. The property-led regeneration strategy, which had served the city in dragging it out of its post-industrial malaise, was drawn upon again to accelerate the city through economic depression. Cheap land disposals favoured developers, ‘Section 106’ money for social projects went uncollected, and a planning regime contorted itself again and again to ram through developments.

This time, international capital played an increasingly important role. Localised economic forces—the ‘Manchester Men’—that had directed and characterised the city’s property market in the mid ’00s were spent. The example of Ancoats, explored in depth in Who Owns the City, serves to illustrate this point clearly. Urban Splash—the totemic developer of the pre-crash boom years had crashed out of their flagship development of Ancoats, and the land that had been allocated to them reverted back to Council control. The council began to look further afield for the capital and confidence that was required to put the wheels back on the development train. The solution it found was the Abu Dhabi United Group—recently brought into alignment with the city after its takeover of Manchester City Football Club in 2008.

The deal struck with ADUG saw the creation of Manchester Life in 2014, a £1 billion joint-venture between the City Council and the Gulf monarchy. In exchange for capital investment, public land was sold at knock-down prices and no requirements on the developer such as affordable housing quotas and Section 106 payments have been asked for. Land in prime locations was signed away on 999 year leases, and the rental income from the estate—which stood at £10 million per year in 2019—went entirely offshore. Yet Manchester Life isn’t a solitary example. Another vehicle was the partnership struck with the Far East Consortium—a Hong Kong based investment firm—to redevelop the land stretching North from the City Centre. Dubbed the ‘Northern Gateway’ and then rebranded as ‘Victoria North’, the outline planning approval was granted in 2019 for this major redevelopment—one barely beginning, but one which will, when complete, see the creation of 15,000 housing units stretching north from the city centre. As part of this process, some old social housing will be demolished—and while residents have been offered rehousing, pleasing some, not everybody is content with the prospect of being rehoused.

As well as the (re)globalisation of the city’s economy, via international capital investment in its property market, the post-crash decade has been notable for the emergence of a new phenomenon: housing financialisation. At its base this trend, visible in major cities across the world, is the transformation of housing into ‘pure financial asset’ rather than as homes for people. This process has made itself concrete through the proliferation of ‘build-to-rent’ apartment blocks across the city; most visibly with the 2018 topping out of the skyscraper cluster built by Manchester-based property developer Renaker at Deansgate Square. While these serve the luxury end of the market—prices ranging between £1500 and £5500 per month for apartments between one and three bedrooms—apartments to suit a range of budgets have been built across the city centre in the past five years. On top of build-to-rent the city has seen a strong growth in other forms of high-yield financialised rental accommodation, Purpose Built Student Accommodation and co-living. Both types of development have been subject to significant opposition—for example residents’ campaigns against the ‘Tombstone’ development on the Oxford Road, and the Church Inn development in Hulme; and widespread opposition to the ‘slums of the future’, a 2000-plus bed co-living experiment on First Street. All three of these plans were pushed through planning after multiple rejections in the face of widespread opposition.

Challenging the ‘Model’

One might be tempted to ask at this point—why does this all matter? Does the growing role of international financial actors in housing really make a difference? Two points suffice here to argue that it does. First, studies time and time again have shown across the world that where the financialisation of housing occurs, inequality, the pricing out of the working class and the intensification of housing crisis follows. Second, the empowerment of an organised and powerful class of property developers, investors and their allied industries alters the balance of power in a city, making them difficult to stop or control. Politicians and policymakers may think they can, like Faust, cut a deal with the monster, cash in on the investment and get what they want out of it. They fail to foresee that they may one day lose control. It feels like this moment is fast approaching in Manchester—if it has not already arrived.

City of Revolution is important here insofar as it emphasises both the political turn that took place in the late 1980s—as municipal socialism gave way to urban entrepreneurialism—and the precise mechanisms which were key to delivering the ‘Manchester Model’.  The toolkit developed in the late 1980s has proved its durability, surviving financial crisis and recession and relaunching the city centre in the last five years as a feverish destination-location of construction and consumption.

Yet the rollout of Manchester’s neoliberal growth machine has not been uncontested. In the last decade in particular, a constellation of social forces have emerged including neighbourhood campaigns, tenants’ unions, trade unionists, community activists, squatters and tent citizens which have sought to push vigorously against the urban status quo. They have found at times allies within the Labour Party, which particularly under the Corbyn years was home to a vigorous challenge from the left to the leadership’s agenda; the result of which was a crop of left-wing councillors. However, the deselection of one of these councillors, and the bullying out of two others owing to the party’s racist internal culture, plus the change in mood music from the Labour leadership means that routes through Labour to pull the city to the left seem, for now at least, blocked. Yet the challenge from the streets to the status quo remains.

Finally, the impact of austerity and over a decade of Conservative rule in London hit Manchester—like other Labour-held urban centres—disproportionately hard. Many of the social problems in the city today have their roots in Whitehall. But to overemphasise this fact is to ignore the very real choices taken by the city leadership itself. The Tory government in London has provided a very useful rhetorical foil for figures in the leadership of Manchester City Council to position themselves within the radical, anti-establishment tradition of Manchester and mask their own position as advocates for the interests of private business.

The trends that have unfolded in Manchester over the last 40 years as it has moved from being an industrial to post-industrial city are not unique to it. The benefit of exploring Manchester is not that it provides a singular case study of neoliberal urbanisation, but rather that for picture which emerges of a city government that has been unusually effective at applying the tenets of neoliberal urbanism. By understanding this city we have a sound basis to grasp wider patterns in the economy. We can also more accurately place the politics of the Manchester leadership within its true tradition—not within the city’s storied radical currents, but rather squarely in its nineteenth-century lineage of cut-throat commerce and capital.

The author would like to thank Alex Niven, Lily Gordon Brown and Dan Whittall for comments on earlier drafts of this text.

About the Author

Isaac Rose is an organiser for the Greater Manchester Tenants Union. He is currently working on a book on Manchester's neoliberal development regime for Repeater Books.