I arrive at Hough End playing fields, that lie between Chorlton and Withington, on a balmy June Sunday morning. Locals are dancing the salsa, while campaigners unfold tables and chairs. Others unfurl huge scrolls of paper, on which local residents will share memories of the fields and what they want for the site in future.
I sit down next to *Phil on one of the fold-up chairs, and we watch the salsa. I ask him why he is here.
“I’m not a quiet, retiree type… I’ve run thousands of miles on this field. It’s a beautiful space” he says. “I have used this field a massive amount. I have walked my dogs and brought my kids here for years. They are going to take it away. Somebody should shout about it.”
Phil is one of hundreds of local residents who have gathered on Hough End playing fields on the 6 June to protest against Manchester City Council’s plans to build on the green space. Like Phil, many are local and many of them use it every day.
Hough End is a council-owned facility in Withington comprising 20 adult, two youth and two mini grass football pitches, and four rugby pitches. The council wants to refurbish the playing fields as part of a “long term vision for Hough End… to become a vibrant seven-day-a-week sport and leisure destination that can grow and sustain sport and physical activity participation in the south Manchester area.”
The revamp would involve the erection of a two-storey extension to Hough End Leisure Centre to include sports field changing facilities, a café, flexible social rooms and gym space, following the demolition of the existing changing pavilion building and surrounding trees.
The plan also includes the introduction of two, artificial grass 3G pitches and associated lighting and fencing, along with a 67-space car park and 100-space overflow car park, on the playing fields adjacent to the leisure centre; as well as a proposed softball and baseball complex on the north field.
The council argues refurbishing the site will increase participation in sport. “The facilities must be updated to a standard to support the use of the existing external sports pitches in providing appropriate changing and ancillary facilities,” a statement accompanying the proposal says. This will ensure “Manchester is able to host local competition and events and continue to deliver the high quality community playing pitch facility required by local community clubs and individuals,” it says.
But locals oppose the plans, arguing they will increase air pollution, destroy wildlife, and fail to tackle childhood obesity. Hundreds have previously come out to the fields to voice their opposition to the plans, and the campaign continues to gain traction online with over 1,000 members on its Facebook group.
The question of who owns the land sits at the centre of the dispute. Originally in the ownership of Lord Egerton, between 1918 and 1929 the site served as an airfield called the Alexandra Park Aerodrome. During the Second World War the site was used to hold German prisoners of war captive, who were forced to build prefab housing estates for the city, which had seen many homes destroyed during the Blitz.
In the covenant, Lord Egerton allegedly bequeathed the land to the people of Manchester on condition that at least 20 acres cannot be used “for any purpose other than as an open space and recreational ground for the free use of the public.”
“There aren’t any fences here,” Phil points out to me. “Well, except for the one preventing people walking on to the tram track — which I will admit I appreciate!”
*Pauline, one of the campaign organisers, says: “I’m not a legal expert so I could not comment on the legalities of the covenant…But ethically he [Lord Egerton] left the fields to the people of Manchester. They should decide on its future.”
She is in favour of using public land to promote healthy lifestyles, but questions whether the plans will achieve this, saying the council:
“…are arguing the proposal will be good for tackling childhood obesity. But taking away fields which children can use for recreation at any time for free in favour of a caged, niche sport seems like a weird way to improve children’s health.
“If anything, you are degrading young people’s lives because you are increasing traffic and pollution.”
Pauline also says the plans will actively discourage disadvantaged children playing sports. “On equal opportunity, for the people on the Old Moat estate where I live it will be more expensive than just playing on the field. That to me is not fair.”
The development proposal may also deepen Manchester’s twin climate and biodiversity crises Pauline argues, “the findings of the most recent State of Nature report was shocking, and we have so much wildlife here.”
I point out that ISG, the construction firm which submitted the proposals on behalf of Manchester council, has undertaken a biodiversity impact assessment.
“They did that survey in March,” Pauline retorts, “the wrong time of year to do it because animals are hibernating or have migrated — which just comes across as not being authentic or honest. There’s so many species of birds, small mammals and insects here, particularly in the north field. All that will be lost.”
As well as objecting to the plans on the above grounds, campaigners say the council has not followed the correct consultation procedure.
A letter to Neil Fairlamb, the council’s Head of Parks, Leisure, Youth & Events dated 20 May from the SHEF campaign group’s core member Ali Abbas expressed a number of concerns about the consultation process, and requested the council extend the consultation period.
In the letter, Ali points out Manchester council’s own Statement of Community Involvement says that where development “on playing fields owned by the local authority or used by educational institutions” takes place the council will “encourage developers to consult with the community before they submit a planning application.”
The Meteor asked Manchester City Council whether it had encouraged the developer, ISG, to undertake a pre-application consultation, and to confirm whether this consultation took place. Councillor Rabnawaz Akbar, the council’s executive member for Neighbourhoods said they had extended the main consultation till the 1 June and:
“We have received a huge number of comments during the Hough End consultation period… so we will put the planning application on hold to give us a chance to review, address and assimilate all this information. If there are any minor or material changes to the planning application, there will be a new consultation period with the local community and all the residents that have registered their contact details as part of the consultation process will be notified directly.”
Many local residents also feel the consultation process was not extensive enough. The council sent consultation letters, on the 15 April and the 4 May to 311 households neighbouring Hough End, but many feel they were left out of the consultation process and that for a plan of this size more local residents should have been informed. The SHEPF letter to the council also states:
“The Chorlton Park councillors were consulted about the proposals in January 2021, but did not share this information or consult with the local community.”
The three Labour Chorlton Park councillors – Dave Rawson, Mandie Shilton Godwin and Joanna Midgley, were contacted by The Meteor for comment. None of them had responded at the time of publication.
I catch *Angelie as she is leaving the gym at the Hough End Leisure Centre. She has lived a road away from Hough End fields since 2011 and comes to the gym a couple of times a week, she tells me:
“As I was leaving today, a campaigner [leafleting at the gym exit] drew my attention to the plans. I had not even heard about the plans,” Angelie says. “They [Hough End Leisure Centre] have actually put the plans behind darkened tinted glass, so that local residents cannot really see them. If it wasn’t for the group, I would never have known about it.
“I didn’t receive a letter about the plans, nothing at all. This was the first time I’d clocked the plans. I came to the gym today totally unaware of it.
When asked what would it mean to lose this space?
“I walk here with friends, I come here after going to the gym to cool down,” Angelie replies. “What I really love about it is that it is unrestricted green space. When you live in a big city like Manchester, to have that is really important for mental wellbeing. It makes Manchester special.”
*These people did not wish their last names to be used.
This article was amended on Wednesday 9th June to state that there were 20 adult, two youth and two mini grass football pitches, and four rugby pitches at time of publication, rather than 24 full-size soccer pitches and three rugby pitches as it originally stated; that a proposed softball and baseball complex on the north field was also included in the council’s proposals; and that Ali Abbas is campaign group member at Save Hough End Fields (SHEF), rather than the group’s chair, as it originally stated.