Images of Richard Leese and John Leech over a greyed out image of the town hall of Manchester City Council

As expected, the redevelopment of the former Central Retail Park was approved by Manchester City Council’s executive. But it was not without drama, as terse words were exchanged between Labour councillors and the opposition Liberal Democrat representative.

Liberal Democrat councillor John Leech was accused by a Labour councillor of “playing little, local, petty politics” with criticisms he made of the plans for redevelopment of the 10.5 acre city centre former Central Retail Park. Cllr Leech raised two major concerns over the scheme: the lack of open, green space, and the risk of constructing offices in a time when our working patterns could be subject to long-term change.

Cllr Leech’s comments resonate with the findings of a public consultation into the site’s future, which found that 84% of those who responded wanted more public spaces in the area, and 90% thought the area did not need luxury offices given the trend for teleworking set by the Covid-19 crisis. In response, during the councils executive meeting on Wednesday, Labour councillor Pat Karney said:

“I think if I lived in Ancoats overlooking this, I might sign the petition; saying it’s be great to have a park, be nice to have a park. But when we think of the economic future for Manchester, and having 10,000 jobs here in the short-to-medium term, and having 145 affordable houses, in my mind, even if I was a resident, I think that would be a compelling case to think about.”

The economic case was also put by Labour leader of the Council, Sir Richard Leese:

“We need to recover at least the money that we’ve spent on the site [£38 million]; that’s an imperative. And this site has, with the proposed development, the ability to support permanently, not the construction jobs, 10,000 jobs. That’s the rough figure we’re aiming for on this site. And with 1 million square feet of development, that, given other issues, is quite a lot of business rates as well, which will become even more important going forward. So, it hits, I think, the priorities we’ve set, it helps us create jobs, it adds to our zero-carbon future, it does give good-quality public space, it makes public space we’ve already got there, in Cotton Field Park, more accessible, and it balances off, I think, a lot of competing pressures for what we do with this particular site within the city.”

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With the economic burden the Council is under, worsened by the pandemic, financial pressures dominate the proposals for the site. The Council is projected to incur a £105 million budget deficit for the year 2021/22, and a £155 million deficit in 2022/23.

In spite of the plans for this site already changing from housing to offices since the purchase of the site in 2017 due to the “levelling off” of the housing market, Cllr Karney dismissed the idea that offices would become redundant in the future:

“The idea that we won’t need offices for the future, peddled by Cllr Leech, these are not daft people. The people spend these millions, like in Manchester Arena recently, who are spending £350 million, do you honestly think these people just work to a Covid timetable? They’re working to decades ahead. And so, in the immediate and medium term, we’ll have thousands of jobs.

“It’s complete nonsense of Cllr Leech, just because he’s playing little, local, petty politics. The serious politicians in here will weigh up the desire of residents to have a park, which as I say, if I lived there I might sign up to;  and secondly, the need in Manchester for jobs, for our young people, particularly in high-tech industries, over the next decade or two, and also we’ve got the added bonus of 145 affordable properties.”

But the affordability of homes in the city centre was disputed by Cllr Leech:

“The trouble is you’ve priced people out of living in the city centre for years and years and years. When there were 500-odd people living in the city centre, pretty much all of them were living in social and affordable housing. Now the number of people living in social and affordable housing has hardly risen at all. In fact it’s probably gone down since then. Development after development is produced with no, or very, very minimal affordable or social homes.”

Cllr Leese demanded to know who it was that had been “forced out”:

“You love this phrase ‘social cleansing’; who are these people who have been forced out of the city centre? These people, that only 500 people lived there 30 years ago. Who exactly is it that’s been forced out of the city centre? The answer is nobody. We’ve actually repopulated the city centre.”

Cllr Lufthur Rahman advised the Executive that the city already incorporates substantial green space:

“We do have 152 parks in Manchester, over a third of Manchester is open green spaces, and we are probably the only city that’s actually creating new parks.”

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The report on the former Central Retail Park development was approved.

Trees Not Cars have campaigned for the space to become a public park. Spokesperson Gemma Cameron responded to the councillors’ comments on the economic benefits of the approved scheme:

“I think the leadership underestimate the long-term economic benefit to the council of fresh air and green space. It would lead to fewer children and adults with respiratory issues due to pollution, increased exercise and improved mental well-being of those living, working and visiting the city centre.

“We also have no details of how the Council plans to accommodate these 10,000 commuters to the business park. I think this decision shows an out of touch leadership with little future vision.”


Other council executive meeting developments

The Covid-19 Monthly Update Report was presented, concentrating on the economic impact and work with communities. Cases for the week ending Saturday 10 October have fallen slightly to 449 per 100,000 people, since the previous week when there were 583 recorded infections per 100,000. Local public health data reveals that much of the reduction is in new infections among students.

About 11% of cases in Manchester are in under-18s, and are related to issues with schools returning which the Council had been highlighting to central government since July. Both universities in Manchester have moved to online learning until 31 October, to be reviewed on 23 October.

Cllr Leese emphasised the impossibility of introducing Tier 3 measures in Greater Manchester without financial support to allow this without massive job losses. The region has developed detailed proposals for managing and containing the virus without severe economic damage, but meetings last week with central government did not reach an agreement on how to proceed, and the issue remains unresolved as of the time of writing this article.

Other major projects were discussed, including the demolition of flats on Bridgnorth Road and the remodelling of Lyndene Children’s Home. The purpose-built student housing report was deferred for four weeks.


To view a webcast of Manchester City Council’s executive meeting – click here
To read other Meteor articles on property development issues in Manchester – click here
Feature image: composite image created by The Meteor

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