The redevelopment of post-industrial sites poses particular issues. Inevitably new uses have to be found for buildings and sites that were designed for completely different purposes and there is no residential population. Historically, Ancoats played a significant part in Manchester’s role as a world centre for industrial production during and post the Industrial Revolution. It also contains the earliest municipal housing block in Manchester, which is still occupied. The area went into decline when companies closed down and production moved elsewhere. It was always a tough area and for many years during and post its decline it was a ‘no go’ part of Manchester city centre. The area had many listed buildings at risk and there were a number of cases of arson in the 1990s. This, combined with 1960s slum clearances, created a number of vacant sites interspersed between some magnificent listed factory buildings. The Ancoats Buildings Preservation Trust (now Heritage Works) was established by the city council in 1995 as a registered charity with the aim of regenerating historic buildings in Ancoats whose cost of repair is uneconomic for the private sector. Working with a range of partners, ABPT was able to acquire, refurbish and resell (or lease), often operating as a ‘developer of last resort’.
Prior to it being disbanded in 2012, the North West Regional Development Agency undertook the compulsory purchase of all the sites where existing owners would not invest in their properties. The development of the area has been facilitated by financial support from the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG) that originally came to Manchester to invest in Manchester City FC. This has enabled 6 sites to be developed at the same time enabling both the rapid and comprehensive redevelopment of the area. In 2014 ADUG and Manchester City Council established the Manchester Life (ML) joint venture as a development company capable of deploying the scale of inward investment required to make a significant contribution towards the city’s residential growth and the regeneration aspirations for Ancoats for the development of the area and for the refurbishment of the listed warehouses.
Ancoats is adjacent to the New Islington area that was largely cleared before the Ancoats redevelopment took place. Situated on the other side of the Rochdale canal, it is the site of key developments such as a primary school and doctor’s surgery that are essential to the creation of a strong community and neighbourhood. The key Ancoats stakeholders are fully aware of this and recognise the necessity for properly joined-up thinking and cooperation being in both areas’ mutual interest.
The old neighbourhood of Ancoats had pretty much disappeared and ML was tasked with recreating the area from scratch, respecting its significant but chequered history. It has worked with existing commercial operations and remaining residents during the redevelopment of the area, although Compulsory Purchase Orders had to be used to acquired land and property from reluctant owners. Manchester Life was sensitive to the needs of the remaining residents by, for example, amending the design of a proposed public realm improvement in response to consultation.
New buildings attempt to reflect their context in mass and scale – in some cases they enhance the area, in others they simply blend in. The most significant intervention is a new public space, Cutting Room Square, created by the demolition of buildings and now surrounded by new and refurbished buildings including retail, restaurants and cafes. The former St Peter’s Church, which has been converted to rehearsal and concert space for the Halle orchestra, dominates the square. This introduces some cultural activity into the area as well as stimulating an evening/night-time economy that is less frenetic than other parts of central Manchester. A positive innovation is the restriction of licensing hours to 11:00 pm, which is better for local residents and, inevitably, determines and regulates the type of person likely to visit bars and restaurants.
There are different types of commercial and business uses in the refurbished buildings, particularly in the creative and design sector. The conversion of the former mills has created new and flexible business spaces, more suited to contemporary uses. The creation of a new type of living and working community has created opportunities for related hospitality and other businesses. A number of retail and café/bar uses have been established serving the people who work and live there and contributing to the evening economy. As it is located in the centre of Manchester it is also close to other city retail and entertainment activities.
The development of the area appears to be reversing its former unsafe reputation by building new housing that is very secure with single entrances to apartment blocks with concierges and high security. Although it may be an appropriate response to inner city living is does give the impression of inward looking ‘gated’ communities, where there are few front doors opening on to the street and little community interaction. There is a range of age groups living there but much of the property is aimed at young professionals who can afford above the average central Manchester rents, which does raise the question of how permanent this part of the community is. There is a strong residents association and families can and are settling in the area. The local primary school on the New Islington side of the Rochdale canal suggests that the area is not just for younger single people.
The speed of the development of Ancoats is very impressive, largely enabled by significant up front investment from ADUG and the rapid acquisition of sites and buildings. This has enabled Manchester Life and partners to work on six sites at once avoiding delays and long-term uncertainties of more typical piecemeal development. It is almost an instant development, which is still at an early stage, however, in time it will mature and become an established neighbourhood.