The outgoing leader of Manchester City Council said he was worried the commercial element of the £1.4bn mixed-use development could be “dumbed down” in favour of more homes, as he reflected on several loose ends at the end of his tenure.
He added that the city council should stick to its guns in terms of what it wants the project to deliver for Manchester.
Despite Landsec’s arrival seemingly providing the much-vaunted project with a shot in the arm, Leese still had questions about the future of Mayfield.
“I am still concerned effectively about dumbing down the mixed-use nature of the city centre,” he said.
Leese added that city council chief executive, Joanne Roney, was due to hold talks with Landsec about Mayfield in the coming weeks and suggested the authority should do what it can to keep the scheme on track as a largely commercial development.
“If you are not very, very careful, management there will want to try and divert that scheme away from commercial development to residential and we would lose the long-term potential of that site,” Leese said.
U+I had been leading on the project but struggled to find funding for the first phase, comprising 320,000 sq ft of offices in two blocks and an 11-storey car park.
Progress on another eagerly anticipated city centre scheme was expected within the next 12 months, according to Leese.
The idea of pedestrianising Deansgate was widely welcomed by stakeholders when it was announced in 2020 but progress has since slowed, raising questions about the council’s commitment to the scheme.
During the pandemic, the city council closed Deansgate to motor traffic. The authority then said it wanted to make the change permanent, enshrining the scheme in its 20-year transport strategy.
But since then, the road has been partially reopened to traffic following a legal challenge by bus company Diamond.
Diamond challenged the legality of the Covid-19 legislation that was used to enact the road’s closure, Leese explained.
“Making the city pedestrian friendly is probably the biggest contribution we can make to the city centre being not only a more liveable place, but a better place to work and have a night out.”
“I would flatten it,” Leese said about the problematic area of the city centre around Bury New Road, near HMP Manchester. The district is one of the few around the edge of the city centre not to have been regenerated. It is characterised by poor built environment and public realm, as well as a thriving counterfeit goods economy.
Despite its proximity to the city centre, the area has seen little investment during Leese’s tenure. The outgoing leader suggested it could be one of the next zones to come forward for mixed-use regeneration.
This will be aided by the creation of the Manchester College’s new £93m city centre campus, being built by Willmott Dixon, Leese said.
The first signs of the new college acting as a catalyst for regeneration are already apparent. Manchester College operator LTE sold a portion of the Boddingtons site to Clarion Housing Group in June, and the housing association’s development arm Latimer plans to build 442 flats across two buildings, including a 20-storey tower.
Central Retail Park
Leese sought to clarify the council’s position on its plans for the 10-acre Great Ancoats Street site, bought for £37m in 2017.
“The reason we haven’t gone out for a development partner yet is because we have been in quite serious discussions with potential end-users who could take the whole of the site.” The future of the site depended for now on the outcome of those talks, Leese added.
Central Retail Park was originally earmarked for a high-density residential scheme that would have seen the city council working in partnership with Abu Dhabi United Group to deliver 1,500 homes.
In 2019, there was a change of tack. A framework drawn up by Deloitte set out plans for a commercial-led development that could provide 1m sq ft of offices.
Progress has been slow. The only activity the plot has seen was its use for a Covid-19 testing facility during the pandemic.
Manchester City Council’s plans to create a temporary car park on the site were approved by the authority’s planning committee but rejected following a judicial review.
At the time, the council said the decision would not impact plans for a commercial development, a stance reaffirmed by Leese at Question Time.
Green space myth and Hulme lessons
During the interview with senior reporter Dan Whelan at Question Time, Leese took the opportunity to rebuke speakers on a previous panel that had suggested Manchester lacked green space.
“Manchester has a phenomenal amount of green space. Can we get rid of the myth that is a concrete city?” he exclaimed.
When asked about the projects that had been the most impactful for Manchester people during his tenure, Leese pointed to the regeneration of Hulme.
Hulme City Challenge, delivered in partnership with the development division of Amec, later sold to Morgan Sindall to become Muse Developments, saw the regeneration of 230 acres of inner city that had suffered major decline.
“[It is] the biggest and most successful urban regeneration we have ever seen in this country,” Leese said. “That is where we learned how to do regeneration and everything followed on from that.”
Thirty years after the Hulme City Challenge project began, a regeneration scheme on an even bigger scale is progressing.
Victoria North, for which the council teamed up with developer Far East Consortium, aims to create 15,000 homes across 400 acres in North Manchester over the next 20 years.
Leese highlighted this project as one of many he would be keeping a close eye on after stepping down as leader after a quarter of a century.
With incoming leader Cllr Bev Craig poised for her first day as leader on Wednesday, Leese was asked how he would like to be remembered once. His response was typically frank.
“I’m not really bothered whether I’m remembered or not. I’m moving on. All I care about is whether I have a city that continues to improve.”