Without doubt, Manchester has, within the last couple of years, commenced a fresh development cycle, which has created its own impetus and has increased the profile of the city as a place to invest.
It is exciting to walk around the city, to see the completion of the entirely modern XYZ Building in Spinningfields and be able to walk down Peter Street and Oxford Road to sit in the rejuvenated Refuge Building in its manifestation as The Principal Hotel.
The challenge in this dynamic period is that we need to make sure that the landscape becomes more 'Mancunian' and avoid rapid development of buildings which could have been built anywhere (we can all think of existing examples!). For the 'new' Manchester, it is important that it both reminds us of what we are and speaks of what we want to become.
A great example has been the St Peter's Square redevelopment, which has coherently knitted public and commercial buildings together with civic space. Thoughtful and intelligent planning in the square has enhanced our city's historic buildings, created new excellent office space as well as provided a larger public space and a better transport service. Overall, one is left to conclude that it is the place it has been for decades but just much, much better.
This has not been the universal experience across the city and this has resulted in some developments lacking the necessary character to blend in with the cityscape. In this context, it was interesting and encouraging to hear that the Council had rejected plans to construct a new hotel on Shudehill. The tower was marvellously described by one Councillor as a 'giraffe surrounded by hamsters'. Not only was its size inappropriate with the locality but its appearance was inconsistent with the early industrial revolution buildings of the Northern Quarter. Put succinctly in a statement to the planning committee, Ben Reed, a local resident, said the area needs to be viewed as 'a truly unique place to live, work and visit..[with].. a village feel of the city centre with unique architecture...' and planning needs to enhance its character, not diminish it.
It would be extremely pleasing to see a new consensus arise between developers, the council, the public and others. I would like to see the energy and engagement channelled towards an ever improving environment, which enthuses and attracts ever more people to Manchester: a city is nothing without its people; but a city cannot exist without its buildings.
In January, the Town Hall closed to the public for 6 years. Completed in 1877, it was built in the Gothic revival style as a means of rooting its present and future in the past: it sought to connect the present with a late medieval heritage in the textile trade, as well as building in a fashionable style which differentiated it from Liverpool (plus ca change). Whereas the Town Hall used to define the city's present and future, it now serves to remind us of the great Victorian metropolis that we have inherited. Part of this history is found in the Committee Room of the Town Hall, where there is a fine oil painting of the members of the Central Executive Cotton Famine Relief Committee, which coordinated the response to the cotton famine of the 1860s.
The response of the whole city during the Cotton Famine is a proud moment where the people joined together to put principle ahead of livelihood, by supporting the Union during the Civil War in its battle against the Confederate South and slavery. In a public meeting of 31 December 1862, all Manchester united and wrote to Abraham Lincoln in support of the cause: 'that the erasure of that foul blot on civilisation ...slavery will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honoured and revered by posterity.' Almost exactly 155 years ago, Abraham Lincoln wrote back, with the words which are written beneath his statue on Brazennose Street adjacent to Albert Square, declaring the statement 'as an instance of sublime... heroism... not surpassed in any age or in any country'.
To put it concisely but hopefully not to be clichéd, in all things, the words of Tony H Wilson serves us well: 'This is Manchester. We do things differently'.
Our past historic buildings need to be cared for, whether that be the Town Hall or indeed the Fire Station; forgotten corners need to be rejuvenated, such as Mayfield Station and new futures need to be made possible through developments like Spinningfields. All of these need to be knitted together with an understanding and care for keeping the essence of what the city is and why it attracts so many people to it. One hopes that the city in 30 years time is simultaneously the same as it ever was, but different, and more like home - a truly unique place to live, work and visit.
“Manchester is a particularly special city and I think the tension that is often felt is that although the councils are thinking of the future, they are overrun with planning applications in the here and now. “They probably don’t have enough time to sit back and think about what the city will look like in 30 years’ time.” Shaun Prime, CEO of operator Go Native