THE LONELY CITY
Good night Brunswick…could the sun be about to set on an historic Manchester neighbourhood?
Campaigners fear Thursday’s planning committee decision on the huge £450m Upper Brook Street development plan could have grave implications for the estate’s long term future.
On the skyscrapercity forum – “dedicated to skyscrapers, towers, high rises, construction, and city planning enthusiasts” – the gossip has been giddy for a while now.
“Hi, Upper Brook Street. Welcome to the city centre. So nice of you to join us!”
“That is some serious development.”
“Probably the highest quality student tower to be built in Manchester if this gets built!”
You can see the point. A proposed phalanx of seven huge new uni-blocks – including, or so we were initially told, a 42-story priapus from the draughting boards of Simpson Haugh – to be erected on the east side of the road between Grosvenor and Cottenham streets. Where now the old forecourts of car dealerships moulder on the edge of city centre civilisation, a happy campus will one day bask in Manchester springtime…purpose built student units and office spaces plus assorted retail and rooftop yoga opportunities to be confirmed…bringing the boondock of Brunswick into play, hooking it up with the Oxford Road Corridor and sending forth the Manctopia mantra that tech + rich students + night time economy = jobs. Several thousand of them, supposedly, once this baby drops.
“The development of purpose-built, high-quality laboratory research and development space on the Oxford Road Corridor is important to achieve the full potential of Manchester’s scientific economy,” said David Lambrick, deputy pro-vice chancellor at the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Manchester Metropolitan University, when the development was announced in March.
“Future occupiers will provide innovation employment opportunities to retain students and the local population, and work to address health inequalities, to the benefit of the local community.”
Ah yes, the local community.
The fly in the ointment.
The taint in the test tube.
The idiot with the maracas.
For just a few yards behind where this is due to be made manifest is the Brunswick estate, in that Mancunian oasis we once called Chorlton-on-Medlock; the cross hatch of ginnels, cut-throughs and closes between Upper Brook Street and the Apollo Theatre which gets by under council skies in the shadow of the Mancunian Way, while the uni gets fat to the one side and on the other the A6 spools out towards Longsight and Levenshulme and all that those places entail.
It’s an historic ‘hood’. A one-time Irish redoubt. A no-go area for the polizei in the 1860s. The martyrs’ incident was just down Hyde Road, of course. Ellen Wilkinson was born on Coral Street. Lloyd George was born on Wadeson Road. Emmeline Pankhurst was on the doorstep. They made munitions round here. Today, a hodge-podge of council stock, maisonettes, tower blocks, plus a bitterly controversial PFI housing project.
And in the words of people I speak to “a proper community”.
“I bought a house here because it was one of the very few places I could afford that is within walking distance of town,” says Krissy, a civil servant. “I came to one of the Fun Days in Gartside Park. It’s such a lovely community here, I was really struck by it. I love it here. People talk to you in the street.”
“In any of these streets,” says Xana, who lives in one of the maisonettes, “I know there are people who will look out for my kids. On my street, on the next street, on the next street along from that. You can go to other places and not have that. [With these new proposals] I hear things about pollution and I don’t know what to do. Should I move? Where would I go? I wish I hadn’t heard.”
“It’s little things. At the pet shop they do afternoons where the kids can meet the animals. They’ve got snakes, birds, lizards. You can’t always get to Chester Zoo at the weekend.”
The Upper Brook Street proposal was bad enough but then one day a fly-post appeared by the estate’s only retail unit – Abed’s shop; Abed had about a dozen over the city, I’m told, then he sold up and kept this one on – with the word ‘Ancoats’ crossed out and ‘Ardwick’ written in its place, before it got defaced.
“Like Flatbush is the new Brooklyn,” says Isaac Rose of Greater Manchester Tenants’ Union, grimly.
When locals formed a pressure group opposing the development it was GMTU who stumped up the money for some flyers. They called themselves Ardwick Against The Monster. Posters began to go up in windows across the estate as people began to get wise to what they might lose in terms of clean air, light, parking privileges and access to services if the development gets the go-ahead.
“There’s an app in Google.” Ian, one of the group members, sends me research papers. “It shows the projection reaching the Apollo. Gartside Gardens will be in permanent shadow.”
They’ve seen some scraps round these parts. Mary Murphy was a councillor for eighteen years over in Hulme, knew Richard Leese when he was a long-haired loon and Pat Karney when he was a long-haired social worker.
In Brunswick Village extra care home – “there isn’t really any extra care” – beneath a photo of Bobby Sands she sings the praise of former ward representative Tom Callaghan. “Me and Tommy were best friends but our politics were one end of the field to the other. But he was a brilliant local councillor. The most respected councillor in the whole of Manchester. He fought that PFI tooth and nail. It sent him ill.”
Cynthia McKee has lived here fifty years. “I’m not sure people have the fight after the PFI,” she says. She doesn’t like councillor Amna Abdullatif’s stance on Palestine. Amna is getting heat from within the Muslim community about the Labour front bench’s position.
The maisonette surcharge debacle is a rabbit hole we sidestep today. The PFI War more generally we can’t avoid, it’s made clear to me, as it’s key to understanding why a community long schooled in standing its ground is knackered right now, just at the moment of its greatest peril.
Brunswick is addled with tunnels, is one wry, cut-a-long-story take I hear…there’s the main line BT one you can drive trucks down but literally dozens of others: we told the developers, and of course they knew, and of course they didn’t listen. They ended up pumping concrete in one place for four days straight, once it was all built, once it was too late.
With the (alleged) corner-cutting and (alleged) price-gouging which are the (alleged) culture of PFI projects – the ninety-eight pound bill for the enclosed plastic kitchen unit handle – the ten year war which smouldered between Ardwick and Town Hall drew repute beyond these hills, one man boasts darkly, not least after the consortium the council went into business with fell out and began suing each other.
“It was talked about in London. The Brunswick PFI.”
Even so. A ward organiser expressed himself shocked the way agreements were summarily set aside once the Upper Brook Street plan came along.
“I worked with the council on the Oxford Road Corridor Plan. We agreed that any development on the site would be no bigger than five stories, with a proviso that it could go as high as other buildings in the area if absolutely necessary.
The highest building in the area is twelve stories, Artillery Court. There was never [previously] any question of anything going above twelve stories.
When this was fed back to the council by our local councillors their response was: ‘Oh, that was just a snapshot in time.’
So that’s their notion of democracy…a snapshot in time.
I take that personally. I’ve put a great amount of effort into preventing this community being over-run by inner city development. I’m worried about the toxic dust and the disruption. This community has just dealt with ten years of that.”
It’s a random consequence of red-brick imperialism, someone tells me, that each time one of the universities expands into the Oxford Road traffic system, even by so much as a tree planter, traffic is ushered away from its hallowed campuses and down Brunswick Street. It can be bumper-to-bumper along there, apparently, with all the student cars and the trucks barreling out towards Stockport and Hyde Road, and the level crossings are in the wrong place. There should be one by the school and they’ve complained and they have a lollipop lady.
Seven and a half years, the developers said about the length of the build. Conventional wisdom suggests ten to twenty, others have offered. Dozens of trucks to be on site every day. A forty-storey block for a thousand posh foreign students and yet when plans were released to the community there was no provision for extra parking.
Students don’t drive, residents were told.
That’s news to Cynthia, who sees her neighbours leave for work at eight and the students park up their place an hour later, every day.
“All the students drive cars.”
Krissy walks to work past the big development on Medlock Street.
“All the pavements are torn up and there’s silt everywhere. It’s caked all over the windows, everywhere. I don’t have kids, but it’s at the back of my mind.”
Maria has kids. She and Ian have rented a terrace on Wadesmill Walk from the council’s housing agency, S4B, for the last few years. They spent four grand doing the place up before their little lad was born.
“When’s the M.E.N. going to do something on this?” Maria asks. “You’d have thought this might be news.”
They don’t agree how it’s going to pan out.
“They’ll get it stopped.”
“They won’t, Ian.”
“Well, we’re claiming compensation for the money we’ve spent.”
“They won’t give it us.”
His great-granddad was a copper in Collyhurst. She’d like to go back to Italy.
An ex high-riser asks me to meet her at the museum. Brunswick was never on the eye of the city council or the university, she says. The universities had Hulme on their doorstep, and Moss Side. Chorlton-on-Medlock was always…she looks for the word…not demographically interesting.
We don’t buy tickets and don’t go in. There’s an exhibit in the new South Asia Gallery. An image of a cotton mill. The note next to it suggests the picture is offensive to people from South Asia who were put out of work by Mancunian trade…and this is her point…her ancestors worked their fingers to the bone and suffered in those mills. Children suffered in those mills. The idea that she should feel ashamed for the benefit of…
Later, she emails. Could her appearance in my article be as brief as possible? The more she’s thought about it the more irrelevant and indulgent her ramblings are, she has decided. She hopes my article gets read and shared and becomes part of the conversation about property, community and the health of citizens living in the maelstrom. She is embarrassed by the idea that her whimsy might detract from that. She feels out of touch and absurd.
We live with the ghosts of others’ good intentions. At the Vallance Centre, I’m told, Brunswick’s primary care NHS facility, doctors Cunningham, Shroff, Barrett, Smith and their team stare down the daily demands of a fifteen thousand strong patient list with the institutional pugilism of a frontline service in frontier terrain.
Older patients remember Dr Vallance himself, who was wealthy on the quiet and left his fortune so the centre could be established. A large, stressed satellite of the NHS, it soldiers on, institutionally unconscious of its existence as a gift to the people of Chorlton-on-Medlock.
What of the centre once the students move in?
At Sand Bar I speak to Drusyna from Kiev. Back home it’s unheard of for a mere citizen to have a say in something like town planning. She thought the UK “would be one hundred percent democracy.
Now I think the council is a joke. Everything is much smaller here, too.
The houses, the flats, the streets…everything here is so tiny, it’s ridiculous.”
Will she move if the development goes ahead?
“Also, I don’t like the noise and the parking. No, I will stay.”
And then Mei, who knows the score – she’s worked in accommodation. The new blocks encourage HMO’s [Houses of Multiple Occupancy] in the area. That’s even more people milling about, moving in and out, often on short term rental contracts with thin documentation.
“The Chinese are quite emotional about this. But what do the Chinese do? We build. We know that if people want to build then that’s what they’re going to do. We’re not going to stop them. People are upset about this, but they know there’s only so much that they can do.”
Brutopia, Maureen Ward calls it. The Shock City editor’s inspired alter ego, Spinster Fabulista, returns always to a ‘brutalist utopia’ of better womanhood realised through tower block living. And there speaks a native. If those big radios of Lamport, Silkin and Lockwood are a little bit of 1950s Minsk in the city’s midst, somehow still receiving the Voice of the Revolution transmission – and let’s pray to God they are – then the evidence is at least that the culture is percolating down to the street. Check ‘Vanishing’ musician Gareth Smith’s recent walking tour of the neighbourhood on the Quietus website. Or read the short story collection Broken Doll (Salt) by cult author Neil Campbell, set in and around Lamport Court. Or spare a thought for his kid sister Julie, better known as Warp Records recording artist Lonelady, up there in Artillery, trying to jiggle the space-time continuum with the keypad of a TR 626 drum machine and somehow take us all back to the housing estate pop music – and indeed the housing estates – of 1982. Few musicians in the city are engaging with Manchester’s heritage in so radical and politically-committed a way.
This is the Mancunian urban predicament, so deeply felt in this postcode it’s in song. As cultural responses, exploring what it is to be Mancunian in the 21st century, these are as authentic as anything out there.
They should teach this stuff at the university.
These are the voices not of planning committee members blithely repeating the words “if we get a Labour government” when it comes to the issue of social housing, they would argue. They’re living it, celebrating it, interrogating it, or otherwise taking seriously their collective social conscience as a community in its fold.
“Don’t print that.”
Isaac Rose, GMTU organiser, weighs the elephant-in-the-room notion that this could be the beginning of the end for Brunswick. The PFI is up for renewal around the time the build is due to finish – who would be surprised if they decided to call time on the whole thing then?
The Block The Block campaign in Hulme, where the community has had some success in pushing back against a proposed development above the Gamecock pub, is a war with a smaller developer.
Councillor Amna Abdullatif asks me to meet her not at a little bit of 1950s Minsk but at the next best thing, Ardwick’s Drive-Thru McDonald’s, whose space age somnambulance appears to allow for a good amount of ward business to be conducted.
Behind the scenes consultations with developers have been rewarded with some stories being deducted from the large tower – which projects now at a whopping twenty-nine, as Moda Living nervously laugh-off the effrontery of having floated forty-two, and campaigners tap their noses and say oh, this is all part of ‘the dance’.
Abdullatif, a community psychologist with Corbynite convictions must take up the cudgels within her own Labour group, an organisation unshakably bound to the principle that tall buildings are grown-up buildings, seemingly.
“I’ve not had one single person in the area say anything positive about this development,” she tells me. “No ifs or buts, my position is very clear. It’s the position I’ve found on the doorstep, in meetings, at the consultation events, at the events we’ve created ourselves…my community is telling me no.”
In the meantime, she fields anger from within the Muslim community over Gaza. Our Friday teatime appointment by the golden arches is her final engagement of the week. On Monday she will make national headlines resigning the Labour party whip in protest at Keir Starmer’s public stance on the Israel-Hamas war.
After pressure from Amna and others the developers belatedly recognise the community’s opposition, albeit barely, noting that forty-two stories “was not supported by the local community”.
“Whilst a robust justification was provided in the original planning application to support the proposed building heights and quantum of student beds, the applicants’ team are now seeking to revise the planning application in direct response to the public comments.”
Property Alliance Group CEO Alex Russell told Place North West: “Our intention for this brownfield site has always been community-focused, to ensure the investment and regeneration of the key city centre district was future-proofed.
“Ardwick has so much potential with its proximity to universities and talent, the city’s core and transport links. The opportunity to revive the neighbourhood was clear, and that is why we have worked closely with residents and key stakeholders to include their aspirations. We have been encouraged by the support so far.”
“The developers aren’t consulting at all,” one activist fumed to your reporter last month. “After the last consultation they said oh, we’ve had very favourable feedback. Nonsense. Every single person they’d spoken to said no we hate it. But they just came back and said oh we’ve had some wonderful reports with people saying how lovely it is…it’s straightforward PR bullshit.”
It seemed worthwhile checking with GMTU on this issue. What of the consultation process, Isaac Rose? How kosher? Can you stand up that claim?
Time passed before a carefully worded comment was returned.
“Developers are required by law to conduct a ‘consultation’ – but there’s a huge question mark over whether these developer-ran spaces are ever a fair forum for residents to lodge genuine objections. They are conducted on the terms of the developers, and the guardrails of the possible are set by the developers and their own commercial agenda. So even when the majority of residents attending express a negative opinion towards the proposals, the developer can point to the mere fact of the consultation happening as evidence that the community are ‘engaging’ with and supportive of their proposals. “
At Sunday service in Brunswick church, curate Kathreen Shahbaz preaches the Parable of the Talents as one who believes in its value on the Manchester street. “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
For some reason I find myself thinking about this whenever I pass the allotments at Hartfield Close, where a recent harvest – pumpkin, squash, sunflower, marrow – has been on display.
This despite, as one local insisted to me, the emergency concrete layer lying only six inches below ground.
Can this really be true?
Whatever, the damn things still grow anyway. It’s the best kept allotment I’ve seen in a long time.
“My concern is for the old chapel [on Upper Brook Street, designed by Charles Barry, now flats]” says Eddy Rhead when I call in at The Modernist. “Charles Barry designed the Houses of Parliament. It…”
He stops himself.
It would be a shame to put the Xi Jinping Centre and the National Cardboard Institute either side of it is the sentence I fear he’s trying to form, though he gives up – much as those buildings might be Number 1 and Number 2 on the Modernist Society man’s fantasy ideal street.
In a perfect world there’d be a supermarket and some affordable housing but in the world we’re stuck with I can’t see how this is going to bring Upper Brook Street into the city centre, he says.
Upper Brook Street is a four-lane highway without cycle paths.
It’s a Soviet boulevard.
They have the Johnny Marr book. Ardwick…ah yes, Johnny Marr, Irish.
As Thursday’s decision looms, residents and campaigners are looking to Bev Craig and her Labour planning committee and asking if it has the back of the Brunswick community?
Or if, in time-honoured fashion, it’s going to sell them down the river to some property speculators with a load of false assurances and then wait until enough literal and metaphorical sand has been blown in their children’s faces that everyone finally gets the message and goes and lives elsewhere.
What circularity can we bring to the conclusion of this report, then, so that it can come to rest on some resonant detail from our Brunswick diorama?
This isn’t the Manchester bureau of The French Dispatch, here to make patisserie from each item in the tale.
“I’m very worried this could be the end for Brunswick,” said more than one experienced campaigner to your reporter.