After a three-decade fight to turn around Manchester’s post-industrial economy, the city’s civic leadership are now preparing to rebuild once again – but this time in very different circumstances.

Covid has shattered, temporarily at least, the city’s economic status quo.

So as 2020 draws to a close, the town hall today unveiled its roadmap out of the resulting turmoil, including £800m in funding asks from the government on the day the Chancellor made his spending review statement to the House of Commons.

This is a prospectus drawn up with ‘win-win’ in mind, say those behind the plan: proposals that will boost the city’s economy while fitting with the government’s priorities, its need for rapid job creation and the ‘levelling up’ agenda that dominated the last election and continues to run through its rhetoric. 

From big city centre public space projects that the council wants help to move forward – including Piccadilly Gardens, the Medieval Quarter around Manchester Cathedral and Lincoln Square – to North Manchester, where it envisages a £2bn health campus around a rebuilt North Manchester General and thousands of new homes between the city centre and Collyhurst, including long-delayed new social housing for that community, many of the big-ticket items relate to plans that will already be familiar. 

Lincoln Square: revamp
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

There are some among them that may be more controversial. One of the projects listed as needing taxpayer support is for work adjacent to the Factory arts project, where costs have already risen £64m above the original budget, along with the St Michael’s skyscraper scheme off Deansgate – the Gary Neville-fronted hotel project that caused a massive planning row in 2017 and 2018, but which is yet to come to fruition.

Outside of the city centre, Manchester is looking north, just as it hopes the government will. It seeks a long-term housing fund so that it can press ahead not only with the huge Northern Gateway housing expansion out towards Collyhurst, but for Collyhurst itself. Housing renewal there was one of the first casualties of the coalition cuts, when a £250m Private Finance Initiative was axed: the council now wants government’s help to add 300 more social housing units to the area, while at the same time paving the way for a decade or more of new private homes for rent and sale nearby.

Further north still, it is looking to the Victorian workhouse buildings of North Manchester General Hospital – long neglected by successive governments – as a jumping off point. The council doesn’t just want a hospital rebuild, although ministers, including Boris Johnson at last year’s Conservative Party Conference, have made positive noises about that and the move is long overdue for a community in need of better health facilities.

Boris Johnson meeting staff at North Manchester General last year
(Image: PA)

It sees the revamped hospital as an anchor for an entire health village, incorporating training and supported housing, creating 4,000 jobs in the process.

Manchester is not only looking to physical regeneration, however. It also pressing ahead with another of its long-standing priorities: science.

An ambitious research and development expansion is envisaged, including the acceleration of a £1.5bn new science park anchored by Manchester University’s former city centre campus near Piccadilly Station, to be branded as ‘ID’.

The huge existing site is described as ‘one of the last major development opportunity sites’ in the city centre.

Further science expansion is also planned off the back of Wythenshawe hospital’s intended rebuild, in the hope of attracting more science and pharmaceutical giants to the city’s southern fringes.

The council, which has drawn up its plan with a private sector ‘sounding board’ of businesses set up during the early stages of the pandemic, also wants to retrofit 3,500 homes a year to make them environmentally friendly – in the hope of creating a wave of new jobs and improving people’s quality of life at the same time.

Manchester Airport, where hundreds of jobs are under threat
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

And for the city’s floundering cultural sector, it has come up with a proposed ‘Phoenix fund’.

The city council is particularly worried about smaller institutions that haven’t benefited – or won’t – from existing government arts bail-outs, which it warns must not be overly focused on London. The Phoenix fund would provide £6m to keep independent arts organisations, freelancers, performers and workshops going over the coming months, in the hope of throwing a lifeline through what remains of lockdown measures and immediately beyond.

And then there’s the airport. The council is pitching for more than £11m in investment in order to further expand commercial space around the airport itself, as well as a similar amount towards a new transport interchange.

But underpinning all of that, stresses the town hall, is the need to train and retrain in the face of soaring unemployment. It has a £36m, two-year proposal for upskilling, which the town hall – and the business community involved in the plan – sees as supporting 6,000 people to stay in education, provide digital skills needed by employers and stave off long-term joblessness.

All these items and more were on the wish list submitted to government ahead of today’s spending review.

Chris Oglesby

Bruntwood chief executive Chris Oglesby, one of the Manchester business figures who has worked on the roadmap with the council, admits the route out of the current economic crisis is a ‘balancing act’ between honesty about the havoc wreaked by Covid-19 and the ambition that has tended to define Manchester in recent decades.

“For me, being able to tread that balance is the secret of a successful business or a successful place, being aware of the brutal facts, yet having that absolute conviction of your ability to succeed,” he says.

“You scream too much about the burning platform and you lose confidence. You’re too confident and you ignore the facts and ultimately you get found out.”

Certainly the city’s need for a route out of the current and growing economic crisis is laid bare by the latest data.

There has been a 76pc rise in Universal Credit claimants here since March and while that is actually below the national average, the rise was higher among younger people and youth unemployment has doubled.

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Meanwhile figures presented to the city’s last executive meeting, earlier this month, show footfall in the city centre was less than half that of the same time last year. It was down in district centres too.

All but one venue in the Village closed its doors after the ‘tier three’ restrictions came in on October 23.

Big flagship stores in Manchester are ‘under performing’ in comparison to their branches in smaller market towns, said the update, with clothing sales in the city centre branch of M&S over the summer having more than halved on last year.

More stores have closed on King Street, including DKNY and Kiehls.

“As the second lockdown kicks in, on top of a long summer of restrictions locally, it will be likely that not all brands will be able to recover sufficient trading profit via online alternatives, or trading in the remaining weeks before Christmas even if the lockdown does end early December,” it added.

All cultural institutions are struggling, meanwhile, with uncertainty over the next stage of lockdown restrictions making it even harder for them to plan for reopening. The council’s recovery plan warns government bail-outs of the arts sector must not forget about institutions outside of London.

The Royal Exchange has been among the institutions eyeing up redundancies
(Image: Getty Images)

At the same time aviation, which underpins so much of Manchester’s economy, is one of the sectors hardest-hit by the pandemic. Manchester Airport has already put nearly 500 jobs at risk, alongside more than 1,200 at companies directly reliant upon it, while two of its terminals are currently closed. The airport is not expecting passenger numbers to return to normal until 2023. 

Looming over the city’s economy is also the potential for a longer-term pattern to play out that sees people change their behaviour permanently, particularly after many office workers will probably have spent the best part of a year doing their jobs from home by the time a vaccine has been rolled out.

Earlier in the pandemic even the former Treasury minister Lord Jim O’Neill, whose arguments have had the ‘agglomeration’ effect of city centres at their heart as an architect of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ agenda under the Cameron government, suggested there may be a permanent structural shift off the back of 2020.

But Manchester’s plan is firmly rooted in the belief that its existing priorities continue to be the correct ones – even if they now need to be turbocharged thanks to Covid-19.

“I don’t think there will be a fundamental shift,” Manchester council’s leader Sir Richard Leese tells the M.E.N. of the underlying economy and in particular the city centre.

Sir Richard Leese
(Image: PA)

“I think what there’s probably been is an acceleration of some of the things that were happening already, particularly the notion of flexible working.”

Office workers are, of course, the lifeblood of much city centre economic activity. But both he and Chris Oglesby – who has skin in the game as chief executive of one of Manchester’s biggest commercial landlords – insist people will still want and need to work in the city centre, even if it is on different terms.

“People are feeling that level of disconnection,” says Oglesby of the feeling being reported back by businesses. 

“We had this problem through the summer where…people didn’t want to come back. They now do.

“And the places where you haven’t got people working are those businesses where typically London-based employers are telling their colleagues that they can’t come in.”

In the long run, he says, their forecasts suggest people will eventually be back in the office at 80pc-90pc of the level they were prior to the pandemic.

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“There’s that human need they play on in the musical Hamilton – ‘I wanna be in the room where it happens,” he says. “And it doesn’t work the same, ‘I want to be on Zoom where it happens’.”

Even so, office density may well reduce as a result of the pandemic, by his own predictions. But, unsurprisingly, he also takes an optimistic view: increasingly businesses had already been recognising that better office environments – including more space – were a key tool in retaining good staff anyway.

Sir Richard is also typically bullish about the city centre residential market. All of the developments that were being built prior to the first lockdown are now back on site and he believes the demand is still there.

“Are schemes still being brought forward? Well, yes they are,” he says. “And I had a meeting with businesses developing in Ancoats and they all have plans in the pipeline. So it is continuing to happen. The evidence so far is that the demand is there. It’s never an absolutely smooth thing, but residential I think will continue to drive growth around the city centre.”

So Manchester’s leadership is, as Oglesby says, balancing concern with confidence at what the recovery plan calls a ‘pivotal moment’ for the city.

It amounts to a wishlist in which it hopes ministers will see their own priorities reflected back, as well as Manchester’s own. In many respects those outlined are familiar territory for the town hall – big-ticket city centre regeneration, research and development – but others that perhaps don’t always spring to mind when Manchester is considered nationally, yet are rising up the agenda.

(Image: Manchester Evening News)

The rebuild of North Manchester General, along with the regeneration of parts of Collyhurst, could contribute to a levelling-up agenda within Manchester itself, never mind England as a whole.

And while £800m is no small amount of money, Sir Richard believes ‘it seems quite modest’ in comparison to what the government has spent on other aspects of the pandemic.

Even after a couple of months that has seen a public war of attrition play out between Manchester’s leadership and the government over tier three, he insists he is confident local and national political priorities can still align where economic revival is concerned.

“I have had direct exchanges – very friendly exchanges – with the Secretary of State about the revival of city centres over the last couple of weeks,” he says. 

“Look: I think most politicians are grown up. You have arguments from time to time, but you also have shared objectives and you don’t one get in the way of the other. I don’t think, in terms of what we want to do, that we will have that fundamental problem with government.

“It is about being able to demonstrate we are ready to go.”

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