Exploring financialisation in and around central Manchester

By Richard Goulding, 30th October 2019

Central Manchester’s apartment boom has become a matter of running controversy in recent years. The city’s political leaders and development industry argue this has brought renewed growth after 20th Century decline brought on by deindustrialisation. Critics point to disconnect between cranes on the skyline and a crisis of street and ‘hidden’ homelessness, asking who benefits from the city’s regeneration.

As part of the 4th Realising Just Cities conference funded by Mistra Urban Futures, Dr Jon Silver of the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute and myself hosted delegates from Sheffield, Cape Town, Gothenburg and elsewhere on a field trip across central Manchester.  Ending in nearby Miles Platting, we joined the Institute’s Dr Victoria Habermehl, who shared their work with residents in mapping out alternative meanings given to the city.

After grabbing coffees, we began underneath the high-end Jackson Street Towers built near Castlefield, designed by local architect Ian Simpson and a symbol of Manchester’s transformation. Since the 1990s, Manchester has focused on property-led regeneration. This involves attracting real estate investment through large projects such as the 2002 Commonwealth Games, favourable planning policies and demolitions of existing housing to unlock land for investment. While development ground to a halt during the financial crisis, since 2014 the city’s real estate boom has returned, even as austerity policies imposed by central government have made the private housing market increasingly unaffordable for growing numbers of people.

Jon and I argue that an important dynamic of Manchester’s boom is ‘financialisation’. As a term, financialisation is used to capture how profits are increasingly made via financial assets rather than the production of goods or services. Housing has formed a leading edge of this dynamic, with techniques such as securitisation enabling mortgage debt to be expanded by repackaging household loans as investments to be traded by financial institutions. Financialisation itself has adapted since the crisis, with institutional investors such as pension funds, sovereign wealth funds or private equity firms targeting private rented housing as a long-term investment vehicle.

Sites such as Jackson Street show how Manchester has been entangled within wider networks of capital flows. Partly this occurs through apartments sold off-plan to landlords, both in the UK and increasingly overseas to middle class investors in South East Asia. It also occurs through local government treating its own land as a financial asset, with Manchester City Council selling public land for an undisclosed sum to the developer Renaker.  While the proceeds are officially to be used for affordable housing, the lack of transparency and consistent failures to hit official 20% affordable housing targets in the centre have led to demands by the campaigners Greater Manchester Housing Action and backbench elected representatives for open debate and scrutiny over this privatisation of urban space.

From Jackson Street, we took a tram to Ancoats on the centre’s eastern fringe. Academic researchers have analysed Manchester city centre as a de facto new town, repopulated from 300 residents in the late 1980s to nearly 20,000 today. Anocats shows a different side however, where the Cardroom Estate was demolished in the early 2000s to make way for the rebranded New Islington, overseen by developers Urban Splash. While some residents were rehoused, the crash left much of the area desolate and fenced off for years, with some people still unable to return over a decade since they were moved from their homes.

Although redevelopment has brought the usual apartments, bars and new workspaces, Ancoats shows how state-led gentrification is experienced not only through rising house prices but also contestation over the meanings and histories of place. The focal point of this was a campaign against the threatened demolition of the deteriorating former Ancoats Dispensary held by Urban Splash, who removed the roof as part of stabilisation works before government funding cuts brought the site to a halt in 2010. Campaigners mounted daily pickets over 12 months in 2012/13 and successfully bringing the site back into public ownership. While they prevented demolition, subsequent attempts to raise match-funding and find alternate forms of use have so far not been successful, highlighting constraints where the costs of preserving heritage are passed down onto working class communities.

Challenges over transparency, accountability and the privatisation of urban space have intensified in the post-crisis years. The council has signed multi-million deals for the wholesale redevelopment of neighbourhoods in East Manchester via its Manchester Place partnership with the Abu Dhabi United Group, also owners of Manchester City FC, and in Collyhurst through its Northern Gateway joint venture with the Hong Kong developer Far East Consortium. While the council has promised new affordable housing, ongoing demolitions in Collyhurst have raised concerns over displacement. There are also strong criticisms that the human rights record of the United Arab Emirates makes the Abu Dhabi Group unsuitable partners for the city.

Travelling a little further up the Rochdale Canal we reach the neighbourhood of Miles Platting. An area predominantly consisting of social housing, the estate was entered into a public-private partnership under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) in 2007, entailing extensive remodelling and new private housing. Miles Platting has also been hard hit by 10 years of austerity, losing its swimming pool and library in 2011.

In a church hall however, we hear from Dr Habermehl and residents about different ways of imaging neighbourhoods to such top-down approaches. The centrepiece of these for our visit is a collaborative map drawn collectively by people living in Miles Platting about their memories and histories of the area. This ranges from blue pigeons that roosted near a former dye works and pointed questions about the status of promised parks and greenery. One corner of the map reveals how ownership of two thirds of the contract financing the PFI is based in the secrecy jurisdiction of Guernsey, with rents and fees paid by residents and the council moving overseas. While financialisation seems abstract, challenging it comes through creating alternatives in the everyday uses of our homes, neighbourhoods, and urban space.