A controversial 17-storey development in the Northern Quarter, nicknamed the “Shudehill Shard” had an amendment to its planning application approved today by Manchester City Council under emergency powers put in place due to the Covid-19 lockdown.
Due to the controversy surrounding the development, which was opposed by local councillors and Northern Quarter residents, the change to the proposal from a primarily residential to an all commercial development would have been scrutinised by the full planning committee. The committee being suspended under emergency powers meant decision was instead made by Chief Executive Joanne Roney, alongside planning committee Chair Cllr Basil Curley and Deputy Chair Cllr Nasrin Ali.
The application for change of use for the infamous “Shudehill Shard” set to occupy 1 & 3 Back Turner Street on the edge of the Northern Quarter was submitted by the developers Salboy Limited, part of billionaire bookie Fred Done’s empire. The previous planning application, approved by the council in July 2019, was primarily for residential apartments, the new decision changes the use of the development to all commercial, comprising of offices and shops.
This new decision, under delegated powers, comes nearly three months after local authorities were given powers to hold virtual planning committees, which has led the Liberal Democrat Opposition to charge MCC with using the pandemic to evade scrutiny. It comes just a month after two controversial developments in Ancoats and Piccadilly were given the green light despite fierce local opposition and objections from ward councillors. In April, two controversial schemes in Hulme were waived through despite being previously rejected by the planning committee.
A Manchester City Council spokesperson told the Meteor, prior to today’s revelations about the Shard decision. “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, the spokesperson said.
In a MCC statement released today, which also included the rationales behind the planning decisions made under delegated powers, Chief Executive Joanne Roney said: “Throughout lockdown we have been working to reconvene a full planning committee, albeit virtual at this time, and reinstall the usual decision making process with oversight from members – and I’m pleased to say this will happen in July.”
Cllr Angeliki Stogia, Manchester City Council’s executive member for environment, transport and planning, said: “The use of the emergency powers was a temporary measure to ensure the planning process could continue during the Covid-19 outbreak to determine a small number of planning applications, in line with Government guidance. I welcome the return of a full committee that will allow the full democratic process to take place.”
The ‘Shudedill Shard’ returns, requesting a change of use
Salboy’s previous proposal was for a 17-storey tower and 6-storey conversion of a 1920s warehouse, which remains onsite, to provide 65 apartments. Salboy now want to use the site for offices aimed at small firms in the creative and technology sectors. The change of use proposal by Salboy for the Shudehill development received 36 objections.
The development site itself has a troubled history surviving two previous planning proposals and three planning committee rejections since billionaire Fred Done’s company first brought forward plans for a 13-storey Aparthotel for the site back in 2017.
The initial applications were rejected in large part because of the height. Even after Salboy reduced the height slightly, concerns lingered. In February 2018, the application came before the planning committee and was again rejected with Cllr Joan Davies calling it a giraffe among hamsters and arguing it did not fit in with the conservation area. About Manchester reported this decision was the end of a “soap opera”, and local activists cited it as a “victory for residents”.
In September 2018, Salboy returned with new plans and caused uproar when they announced the next-day demolition of the site’s 1870’s warehouse at a public consultation. While the public backlash could not save the building, it did result in Salboy agreeing to retain the 1920’s warehouse on the site.
Returning in June last year, Salboy proposed a 64 apartment development that would retain the remaining warehouse. However, to fulfil financial viability, the adjoining tower was raised to 17-stories. Unsurprisingly, this attracted strong criticism and dismay from local residents and councillors – especially considering initial concerns were about 13 stories being too tall. Despite a large and widely circulated petition, 33 individual objections from residents and formal complaints from ward councillors, the proposal passed the committee by 8 votes to 5.
The result of a strong campaign suffering an unexpected setback has left many residents cynical of the council’s democratic commitments. Andrew Brook, a Northern Quarter resident spoke at the planning meeting in June and spoke openly about his surprise that the proposal was passed:
“In a blink of an eye it was approved despite 5 committee members speaking against it, which only makes me think where is the oversight, where is the governance even in times when the committee was sitting as normal compared to what is happening now?”
With the schemes returning to Manchester’s planning executive Salboy have opened unresolved bitterness in tandem with an ongoing controversy around the planning committee’s suspension. Exacerbating tensions further, since there are few significant changes to the project’s exterior, Salboy has decided to waive a fresh public consultation.
This decision has only provoked further opposition among residents. Andrew is emphatic in his opposition:
“Here’s a building that is going up on your doorstep and we want to sort things with you as a neighbour. But that building, its form, does not fit in this part of the Northern Quarter, without changing the design of the building there’s no way that I or the other residents can be supportive of it.”
But from Salboy’s perspective, there is little leeway to give. Examining the finances of the previous planning proposal highlight the projects marginal viability. The economic assessment of the apartment development predicted building costs at £20.3m with a profit yield of 2.89 per cent, well below the generally accepted benchmark of 20 per cent. This was attributed in part due to retaining the remaining 1920s warehouse.
Further, this application was passed with the condition that a Section 106 agreement would be agreed, a form of planning contribution in which planners pay towards infrastructure improvements needed due to the development. Section 106 agreements can also cover affordable housing with in the development or provide money for affordable housing outside the development. The original Salboy proposal for residential apartments did not include any affordable housing contribution within the development. It is uncertain whether the new all commercial proposal is still subject to a conditional agreement for payments to the council around infrastructure.
Alongside this new Shard proposal the council are looking to lease the land to Salboy. An obscure council Key Decision document, pointed out to The Meteor by a source within the council, dating from May 2020 details intentions to buy Salboy’s Freehold of land and lease the unified plot back to Salboy netting MCC a £500,000 profit; according to our source.
When contacted by The Meteor Salboy were clear about the reasons for the new proposal: “Some of the changes made during consultation period impacted feasibility of the site, so we made the decision that this site would be better as commercial.”
More than three years on from the original application, what is profitable in Manchester appears to have changed says Andrew. “They’re [Salboy] clearly not going to make enough money by trying to sell it as apartments, they were speculating on a housing bubble on the city centre that probably started to contract a little sooner than they expected.”
Analysis from Savills, the property agent, highlights a continually high uptake in office space as the Manchester ‘market’ continues to be “characterised by a lack of supply”. The new viability assessment projects annual rent income at £1.459 million assuming the building remains at 100% occupancy. Despite the change in use the new development is only projected to achieve a profit of 6.98% conditional on there being no planning obligations.
With the project still achieving only marginal viability, residents fear being saddled with a vacant building which contributes to the dismantling of the Northern Quarter’s unique character. The proposal document due to go under the eyes of the planning executive includes seven pages of detailed objections considering heritage damage. One objection says: “For this quarter, bigger is not better. Small is beautiful is the ethos of the Northern Quarter and this excessively tall, wide construction has no place in our community.” This has led some to question the point in a conservation area if schemes like this can be built here.
Objections also include complaints about the planning system itself. One objection says. “In the end, this is not a viable building and the Council should not accede to its significant height just because this will make it less of a viability issue to the developer – with significant compromise to the public’ another simply states ‘If the design is too expensive to build viably, don’t build it, or redesign it!”
Piccadilly Councillor Sam Wheeler has been key in organising resistance to the project within the council and the viability of the new proposal:
“As I’ve said all along, this building is the wrong design in the wrong place even under the best economic conditions. Having an application that teeters on the edge of viability in the current climate is a needless risk. A half-empty vanity office block marring the skyline would actively damage the diverse and creative character of the Northern Quarter which will be such an asset in Manchester City Centre’s recovery. It should be rejected.”
With full scrutiny of planning proposals being reinstated by Manchester City Council in July, councillors and residents unhappy with controversial planning applications will once again have the opportunity for their complaints to be reviewed by a full planning committee.
Research contributed by Conrad Bower, Andrea Sandor, Alex King
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Tune in to the next planning committee on 2nd July