Manchester Shield started out of sheer frustration with what feels increasingly like a preposterous planning pantomime being run in this city. We believe that there are aspiration and inspiration gaps between the people and leaders, and the dialogues between these two groups are stunted, impeding what the city becomes.
The organisation was born from the success of the Friends of London Road Fire Station, a tireless campaign which pressured the delinquent landlord Britannia to finally, after 30 years of failing to develop the site as promised, sell it to Allied London. Our research and publicity led to the conceptual revival of an international icon and the CEO of Allied London, Michael Ingall, has incorporated many of our ideas into the new design of the building, leaving a triumphant thumbprint of the people who, for once, were asked about their ambitions.
Having formed in mid-April this year, Manchester Shield already has well over 2,000 followers on social media. We’ve also attracted a fair bit of criticism, with one councillor calling those in the group no more than ‘astroturfers’, a popular term for people who are part of a “fake” grassroots movement. The suggestion seems to be that the issues we want to change are those which no one cares about, but this is simply not true.
People are angry about the continued demolition and erosion of important Manchester buildings and at the incredible amounts of heritage that have already been lost. The sense of character, style and meaning that these buildings claim are far more valued than some would have us believe and this flies in the face of Manchester City Council and their demolition fetish for what could be celebrated and re-used assets. There is a genuine concern for the future of loved places like Oxford Road Corner, the Mayfield area and all the myriad pubs and buildings which have an irreplaceable sense of the history of Manchester. Need more proof? Just look at the turnout for our event on 7 August to save The Smiths Arms, Ancoats’ oldest pub.
Recently we held our own awards ceremony at the endangered Star and Garter to celebrate the best and worst architecture and buildings in Manchester. 650 people took the opportunity to get their voices heard. 650 people taking part in an awards ceremony for an organisation that isn’t even six months old is not astroturfing. It’s the sound of disenfranchised people having enough of being prescribed decisions and hectored with disingenuous sentiments regarding the development of the places they love, live and work.
Notably, where there was little or poor public consultation, people were more likely to think of a development negatively. Named and shamed were Piccadilly Gardens, Library Walk, the disgraceful demolition of Gaskell campus and the diabolical failures of Peel Group’s Pomona, since renamed Manchester Waters. In contrast, the celebrated developments stemmed from progressive developers seeking to improve their products by valuing the visions of the people. From Allied London’s London Road to their St John’s and Trinity Islands consultations, the Toastrack by Generation, Kampus by Capital and the Whitworth Street Corner, what is beyond doubt is that better engagement results in more popular design proposals, which in turn leads to citizens feeling empowered.
Recently, for example, Manchester Confidential’s planning sector journalist was banned from the consultation launch on 28 July for Gary Neville’s proposed city centre development. The website objects to the proposal, instead promoting a campaign to save a pub whose history goes back to the Peterloo Massacre. Neville presented with the leaders of Manchester City Council. Often it seems critics are maligned and ostracised, something Shield is experiencing for having different opinions. [NB - Neville has since conducted a separate interview with Manchester Confidential, here.]
We recognise, however, that functioning entirely as a protest group won’t affect any change and that the best way to achieve the results we wish is through dialogue. We have met and negotiated with people who have different opinions to ourselves, as we know this is the only way we can move forward in achieving an active and empowered city. Receptive developers are rare, but entrepreneurial and pioneering ones recognise the economic benefits of talking to the inhabitants of a city and getting them onside. Whether it’s through independent, non-politically chaired stakeholder meetings, think tanks that represent citizens, professionals and businesses alongside politicians, or open-meetings with planners, developers and architects, conversations between all parties are the only way to achieve true, successful, popular change.
Whether we like it or not, Manchester is changing. We’re not metropolitan conservatives who wish for the current map of the city to be preserved until the end of time. We just want to ensure the fascinating social and cultural fabric of this wonderful place is respected in any developments that do take place. At times it can feel like the decisions made by the Town Hall and its planners are immune to the wants and desires of people like us and we are tired of it. We are tired of developers who are not encouraged to work genuinely with people. We are tired of having our correspondence ignored. We are tired of having our concerns belittled. We are tired of closed-door decisions.
Together, we can alter this. Together, we can alter the status quo and ensure Manchester’s developers create a city for us all.