car park Central Retail Park

90% of locals in survey thought the area did not need any more luxury offices, as campaign group Trees Not Cars brand Manchester city council’s public consultation on future of site of former Central Retail Park “tick box activity”

Tomorrow Manchester City Council’s Executive is set to approve the development framework for the former Central Retail Park that will see it turned into a zero carbon office district. But, according to a public consultation carried out by grassroots campaigners, an overwhelming majority of locals want public spaces on the 10.5 acre site in Ancoats rather than luxury offices.

Campaign group Trees Not Cars’ public consultation, which ran for five weeks, received 215 responses, 79% of which were made by people who live in the local area and 85% of whom live or work in the area. 

90% of those who responded to Trees Not Cars’ consultation thought the area did not need luxury offices now that a large proportion of office workers worked from home due to Covid-19. 84% of respondents wanted more public spaces in the area, particularly ‘green’ and ‘natural’ spaces where people could socialise. More seating, play areas, cycle routes, canal access, and toilet access were suggested as ways the area could be improved.

Those who took the survey described using the area around the former Central Retail Park for walking (56%), exercise like running and cycling (30%), relaxing (25%) and socialising (14%).

Campaigners say their consultation results show locals want and need more green space. 

Gemma Cameron of Trees Not Cars says: “Our consultation makes it clear that people who live and work in the area don’t want luxury offices. The pandemic has shown us how crucial green space is for our physical and mental health, and has shifted our lifestyles towards remote working. It’s baffling why the council would plough on with pre-pandemic plans in the midst of so much uncertainty. What is certain and will always be certain is people need green space, and Central Retail Park is the obvious site in Manchester for a public park.”

The council purchased the former shopping centre on Great Ancoats Street in 2017 for £37 million in what was described as the “largest residential land purchase” in the history of Manchester city centre. The council planned to use the space as a 440-space council-run pay-and-display car park for two years, followed by redevelopment into offices, in partnership with Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG).

In response activists set up a campaign group, Trees Not Cars, to mobilise community groups across the city centre against the plans. The group made headlines last year after launching a petition to turn the site into public green space that garnered over 12,000 signatures. Trees Not Cars are currently in the midst of a legal challenge against the council’s short-term car park plans; the court date is set for January 2021. Until a court decision is made, the council cannot use the site as a car park.

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The council decides on whether to approve the framework at 2pm on Wednesday 14th October

Looking towards its long-term plans, Manchester City Council’s framework for Central Retail Park will be decided on this week by the Executive. A report for the Executive recommends approving the framework, which it argues “represents a significant opportunity” to deliver the objective of turning Ancoats into a “net zero carbon commercial district with the ability to attract new businesses and talent to Manchester”. The council had requested its Strategic Director of Growth & Development Louise Wyman carry out a public consultation on the draft framework in February.

According to the report, the council’s consultation on the framework received 598 responses, 79% of which were made by people who live in the area. The consultation ran from 3 August until 25 September and the council produced material for a range of audiences, such as postcards to local residents, an updated Central Retail Park consultation webpage on the council website and communication with key local organisations including landowners and community groups.

The report underlines locals’ concerns with the council’s plans to develop the site into predominantly luxury office space. “Responses cited the lack of greenspace in the city centre and several requested that the site be turned into a city centre park”, the report says.

“Demand for office space was questioned particularly in light of the shift towards home working during the lockdown,” the report says. Northwards Housing voiced “concerns about the quantum of office space in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the shift towards home working, which may suggest that more affordable housing could be provided.”

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In response to these concerns, the council report argues that demand for office space would resume in the medium-long term, citing the fact that businesses were looking to relocate their core business and headquarters out of the South East and London in a process termed ‘north shoring’. 

“Market testing undertaken at the time of preparation of the DF [Development Framework] indicates that there is an opportunity to encourage both global and local players in the TMT [Technology, Media and Telecoms] /digital and creative sectors to consider the former Central Retail Park as a potential regional base given its location within the city,” the report says.

However, while many respondents to the council’s consultation also supported the framework’s zero-carbon objective, they “thought that the framework would not be able to meet the goals with the amount of buildings proposed”, the report says. “Many felt the best way to achieve zero-carbon would be to have fewer buildings or no buildings at all.”

The report says Piccadilly Ward Members carried out their own consultation on the future use of the site. Its findings seem to align with those of the Trees Not Cars consultation; of the 245 respondents, 99% thought the area should include public green space and 80% thought the housing on the site should be genuinely affordable for local people.

“The council plans to adopt the framework without really listening to the people of Manchester.”

In spite of these objections, the report recommends the Executive approve the draft framework with only minor notes; to highlight the proximity of public spaces in adjacent areas but not provide more public space in the framework; to “note” the requirements to be more walking and cycling friendly; to “greater capture the aspiration to deliver zero carbon objectives”; and to set aside three sites in city council ownership – land adjacent to Butler Street, land adjacent to Downley Drive and the former Ancoats Dispensary – to “promote” affordable housing.

Julia Kovaliova who leads the Trees Not Cars campaign says: “The council plans to adopt the framework without really listening to the people of Manchester. 

“People have made it very clear to the Council, Piccadilly Ward Members, and us through our consultations that public green space is crucial to the future of this site. Instead, this report recommends the framework highlight existing public space as if the people who live and work here don’t really know the area. 

“We are the people who know the area best and likely much better than council officers and Executive members who don’t spend everyday here. The vague and wooly language used in the recommendations means nothing has to change about the framework. 

“The report is frankly insulting to the people who responded to the consultation and shows it to be just another tick box activity.”

The Executive decides on whether to approve the framework at 2pm on Wednesday 14th October. You can watch the meeting live here.

Featured image: Google maps

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  • Alex is a Meteor journalist and heads up its Web and Tech team. Alex has a background in History and moved to Manchester in 2018 having freelanced in Bristol. He has particular interests in the climate crisis, industrial relations, local government and political economy. He advocates for media democracy and a Green New Deal as the best tools society has for re-engaging the public and restoring collective prosperity.

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