Despite cross-party calls for the Planning Committee to be reinstated, another spread of developments will be decided this week by the council’s Chief Executive.
The Meteor looks under the hood of a fiercely opposed apartment block in Ancoats and a build-to-rent skyscraper, along with three other developments.
Over 400 units of housing are set to be approved this Wednesday by Manchester City Council’s (MCC) Chief Executive under emergency delegated powers. Two of the developments are considered particularly controversial with councillors objecting to “Bowler’s Yard” in Ancoats and “Victoria Tower” in Piccadilly due to concerns about overdevelopment and lack of affordable housing.
The decisions come nearly two months after local authorities were given powers to hold virtual planning committees, leading the Opposition to accuse MCC of using the coronavirus crisis to evade scrutiny. It also comes after two controversial developments in Hulme were given the green light last month despite being previously rejected by the planning committee and fierce local opposition and objections from councillors.
In March, MCC suspended the Planning Committee due to the Covid-19 crisis and delegated powers to Chief Executive Joanne Roney, alongside planning committee chair Cllr Basil Curley and Deputy Chair Cllr Nasrin Ali. At the time it was not yet legal to hold virtual planning committees, but powers to do so came into force in early April. Since then councils across the country have held virtual planning committees, with Kensington and Chelsea holding the first fully remote committee meeting on 8 April. At least five other Greater Manchester councils have also successfully moved to virtual planning committees, including: Bury, Salford, Tameside, Trafford, and Wigan.
Manchester City Council told the
Meteor “The ambition remains to move to a virtual planning committee. A lot of
work is being done by Council officers to be able to move to this position.”
Although the Executive met remotely earlier this month, this week’s scrutiny
committee meetings have been cancelled, with MCC saying, “The Chairs of
Scrutiny have agreed a timetable for starting virtual meetings in June.”
The Opposition has charged MCC with using the coronavirus
crisis to avoid scrutiny. A spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats says:
“This Council is using the continuing coronavirus restrictions to evade all oversight from local residents on planning, letting the Chief Exec rubber stamp whatever developments they want, however controversial or harmful for our city. We know that this is a Council which dislikes opposition and scrutiny, but not allowing any oversight at all is a new step even for them – Labour want decisions to be made behind closed doors and have zero care for what residents think.”
Following the Meteor’s investigation into MCC suspending the planning committee, Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA) published an open letter signed by other community groups demanding the planning committee be reinstated. The story was later reported in the Manchester Evening News and the Sunday Times, which highlighted concerns these powers will be used to pass the UK’s largest indoor arena. GMHA say:
“Despite media scrutiny and a letter signed by ourselves and 18 other community groups, the Council are still deciding on planning applications behind closed doors. This, as we made clear last month, is deeply damaging to democratic scrutiny of decisions that will shape our city for years to come. We repeat our demand that Manchester City Council immediately return to a democratic decision making process for its planning committee. This means scrapping the delegated powers to make planning outcomes about the future of our city.”
Below are the five planning applications being decided this week.
Bowler’s Yard, Ancoats – “This will stick up like a sore thumb”
The application to attract the greatest number of objections is an 11-storey apartment development dubbed “Bowlers Yard.” Over 70 individual objections from residents have been registered, as well as formal objections from Ancoats and Beswick councillors.
Complaints include concerns about height, density and a loss of privacy since the development will overlook nearby buildings. Bowlers Yard will be the tallest building in the area after the already-built and occupied Milliners Wharf and Hat Box. The development will occupy a narrow strip of vacant land on the corner of Pollard Street and Munday Street close to New Islington Metrolink stop.
Cllr Emma Taylor has objected to the plans, telling The Meteor: “I have concerns about the height, it will dwarf Hatbox and I’m concerned this will stick up like a sore thumb.” She goes on to say “My big anxiety is that it won’t fit into the neighbourhood” and that “This isn’t doing anything for the area.” She says her objections are supported by the other two ward councillors, Cllr Majid Dar and Cllr Rosa Battle. Cllr Dar told the Meteor he supports residents’ opposition, saying, “The majority of representations on this item have been against it, therefore it’s my job to represent my residents’ views.”
The development has also drawn criticism for not including any affordable housing. Instead, the developer will make a £102,000 contribution to build affordable housing in another area. A spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats says:
“A huge 11 storey development with zero affordable housing is a familiar story with this Labour Council – they let developers get away with anything. The city’s target for affordable housing is 20%, yet here in the City Centre, time and time again, we see nothing affordable at all being built, and longer-term residents being priced out. It isn’t good enough, and we need some serious improvements in scrutiny and oversight of developers.”
Apart from concerns of loss of privacy and sunlight, residents are increasingly concerned the area is being overdeveloped. Chris Northwood is a resident in nearby Milliners Wharf who moved to the area in 2011 from Doncaster to work for the BBC.
“The reason a lot of us live here is because it’s not as dense as the city centre, it’s still flats but you’ve got a little more space around you, and it feels like it’s gradually getting eroded away and it’s getting quite dense.”
Rather than flats, Northwood says locals were supportive of a previous application to develop the site into a shop. “There’s anger,” he says, “because we know a few years ago an application was put in to build a small retail unit, which was well supported. It was one or two stories and it would’ve added to the community.” A planning statement associated with the current application says plans for a retail unit was given consent in 2013 as part of a wider scheme but “has remained undeveloped due to market changes which had stalled development of this final plot.”
Northwood feels the area would be better served by a shop saying, “It adds a little bit of value, rather than becoming a ghost town of gated residential areas. Especially as the green space is going at some point.”
Northwood is referring to New Islington Green, one of the few remaining green spaces in the area that MCC sold to developers General Projects who plan to turn the park into office space for new businesses. A campaign to save the space is ongoing, with a petition that has garnered over 3.6k signatures.
While the current application includes a “pocket park ” on site, with only 9 trees in planters and a scatter of benches, residents remain unconvinced. One objection states simply “the pocket park is not enough.” Others point to the need for more green spaces and commercial infrastructure to make the neighbourhood sustainable.
All of this is contributing to residents’ concerns about the future liveability of the area. After two decades of redevelopment Northwood thinks the area is reaching capacity:
“I would like to stay here long term but I fear that if it’s overdeveloped it would lose the liveability that’s a big part of the reason why I stay here. You go outside and see people walking dogs and children playing on the grass and if you lose that, it’s just a bunch of flats with no community aspect to it.” He adds, “It’s about getting the balance right between density and liveability.”
Planning guidelines for the area state new buildings should “be moderate in scale” and contribute to a “neighbourhood that is varied in character.” However, comments from the project planning statement show the developers suggest families look to “more traditional neighbourhoods in Manchester” as their proposal is made to “appeal to a distinct demographic.”
Residents are concerned the
application isn’t going before the planning committee. Cllr Taylor says: “I’ve
had a couple residents who’ve made the explicit comment: ‘Please let this be
heard in front of the full committee’. So when a resident gets in touch, I send
it to planning officers and ask them to include this with the planning process.
I didn’t have anything back. Next I had an email that it was going to be
decided [under delegated powers].”
Northwood says, “I don’t see any reason why the planning committee can’t meet virtually by video conference. Even though the planning committee would’ve voted it through anyway, because they’ve not got the best reputation, at least it would’ve been done properly rather than this.”
Victoria Tower, Piccadilly – A build-to-rent skyscraper, none of it affordable
The largest decision to go under the planning committee is a 25 storey 177 apartment residential tower block on Great Ancoats Street. The development, currently labelled “Victoria House” is a build-to-rent mixture of one, two and three bedroom apartments.
The £42 million development contains no affordable housing and makes no contribution to construction of affordable housing off-site. This is despite MCC’s Affordable Housing policy stating 20% of units in a new development should be “affordable” (rented at less than 80% of market rents or offered for shared ownership) or developers should make a financial contribution towards affordable housing elsewhere.
Local councillors have expressed concern over the development. Cllr Jon Connor-Lyons is a member of the suspended Planning Committee and a Piccadilly Councillor. He told the Meteor, “I’m against this application due to the absence of affordable housing.”
The development includes a Public Realm Contribution of £479,000 for a public square next to Victoria Tower and landscaping for several trees around the building.
Cllr Connor-Lyons says “the green space coming forward will be much needed” and “It is arguably the least a developer can do for off-setting not providing affordable housing.” However, he adds, “I’d have argued to see a much larger contribution to this and other spaces for greening.”
The Opposition have also expressed concerns over the lack of affordable housing, with a spokesperson saying: “This is yet another case of huge skyscrapers being built by developers who have to pay zero real levies to the Council, have zero real oversight from the Council, and have zero interest in what local residents think.”
The viability assessment, a planning form used to determine the profit margin of a development, was completed by development consultancy Turley. Among other services, they cite their ability to “provide the case to negotiate planning obligations including affordable housing.”
Build-to-rent properties are developments units subsequently sold to “institutional investors.” These investors can be pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, banks and other investment or rental companies. The viability assessment does not list any prospective buyers.
Oxygen Tower, a 32 storey tower block further up Great Ancoats Street indicates a common business cycle for these types of development. Starting at £240,000 for a 1 bedroom, apartments are already being marketed to “investors ” citing “6% rental yields” and anticipated growth in value of 15%.
According to the viability assessment, Victoria House will be sold to “institutional investors ” who are predicted to make an initial rental revenue of £1.87 million per year. Forshaw Land & Property Group, the developer for Victoria House, will also make at least £3.9 million in profit after construction and sale costs.
Elmswood Park, Moss Side – Proposed Health Hub replaced with homes for over 55’s
A 40-home apartment scheme in Moss Side will provide shared ownership homes for residents over the age of 55, and will be managed by community landlord Mosscare St Vincents. The site, already recently developed, originally included an NHS Health Hub. 11 objections have been registered and concerns raised by councillors around the removal of the Health Hub (especially in light of the pandemic), lack of community space, and inclusion of a wall around the development.
In the report for the Chief Executive, councillors said about the absent Health Hub:
“We are very disappointed that this decision has not been communicated to local residents and an explanation given as to why the Health Hub could not be developed … The availability of primary and community health care is already an issue in the area, the GP practices are quite a long way away, and the wider area is already being faced with significant socioeconomic disparities in health and well-being. The Health Hub, it was felt, would have had the chance to address those issues. Building health resilience is of the utmost importance as the current pandemic illustrates. We believe that there will be even greater future strain on local health services from the needs of the older population in this facility alongside the extra-care facility which is due to open shortly. We want to see this addressed as it is a huge disappointment for our residents and our future residents as well.”
One objection in the report says, “With a high density increase in population there should be an increase in infrastructure provided. This reduction in facilities is a classic switch and bait tactic.”
Echoing concerns about overdevelopment in Ancoats, other objections from residents relate to inadequate provision for social interaction and quality open spaces. Councillors said: “The area is also in need of a community space. It is hugely disappointing that the scheme does not include this provision, especially as it has been previously raised with the developer.”
Another objection from councillors relates to plans to build a wall around the development. “We are shocked that the plans indicate a perimeter wall and railings for the development. We feel very strongly against gated communities and firmly believe that walls and physical boundaries reduce the potential for intergenerational activity and for people to understand one another and commit themselves to any sense of common or collective purpose. The very foundations of citizenship are rooted in sharing, and we recommend that the walls and gates are completely removed from the design.”
Hill Quays, Deansgate – Roof extension for luxury flats, but who for?
A two storey roof extension will create 11 additional dwellings and extend the existing penthouse apartment on a block of flats in Deansgate on Jordan Rd. 14 objections have been raised mostly around the impact of construction on current residents.
One says, “It will have a detrimental effect on anyone sleeping during the day including nurses, which in turn will affect abilities to care for patients in a safe and alert manner.”
Residents are also wary of the impact of building on their privacy. Another objection says: “The use of scaffolding will affect my privacy and dignity, which is entirely unacceptable. How will this be overcome to ensure that anxiety is not caused?”
More broadly, some question why the extra two floors are needed: “There does not seem to be a need for increased living space given the plethora of new properties having just been built and empty properties within Hill Quays itself.” Another says, “This application would make the whole building a building site simply to increase the penthouse owner’s profits.”
Cllr Joan Davis responded to a request for comment and explained that as a member of the planning committee she cannot take a position on applications and sit on the committee when those items are under discussion. “Under the present arrangements of course the full committee is not currently meeting,” she says, “however, given the possibility that a decision could be deferred and return to a subsequent meeting, I am maintaining my usual approach.”
Cllr Marcus Johns says Deansgate councilors have not been contacted by any residents and thus do not individually object to the plans for Hill Quays.
Not all applications up for decision tomorrow have courted controversy. Local housing association One Manchester plan to build 139 affordable homes with a mix of one and two bedroom apartments and family-orientated housing. One hundred will be for social rent and 39 for affordable rent. The development will occupy a brownfield site off Oldham Road in Newton Heath. With the majority being social housing and the rest affordable, this application will likely have broad support.
By Nick Prescott and Andrea Sandor
Research contributed by Katy Preen, Alice Toomer-McAlpine and Conrad Bower