The final episode of Manctopia – in our minds the best in the series – pits the booming investor-led private rented sector against the challenging but rewarding owner-occupier segment, to explore the notion of communities and how they are formed.
The four-part BBC Two series Manctopia: Billion Pound Property Boom wrapped up this week having shone a light on Manchester’s building boom and the ways in which residents, businesses, politicians and charities are caught up in it, for better or worse.
Last night’s episode asks a vital, double-pronged question: what kind of city are we building and how do people want to live? There are, of course, only subjective answers.
We are taken first to West Tower, Renaker’s 64-storey apartment building at Deansgate Square, where interior designer Sarah is preparing the last of four penthouses for a millionaire client born on a council estate in Manchester, and now the founder of a successful health and wellbeing company.
The client hates the colour grey, so the apartment has been reconfigured to block the view of the grey kitchen from the open plan living room, as part of a pricey, high-spec, yet temporary fit-out to cater to the demands of the fast-moving rental market.
“There is every possibility that in 18 months my design will be dismantled, but that’s what my business is – the people living here want to be bang on trend,” Sarah says. “It’s not a forever home, so we don’t clutter it, we put in just a few beautiful things.” Cue, a bed that sells for up to £350,000 and a feature light installation the cost of which Sarah refuses to disclose.
The episode may poke fun at it, but as our readers know there is a market in Manchester for high-rise, high-density PRS development sold in bulk to institutional investors – to which West Tower’s architect Ian Simpson can attest. “This is the capital of the Northern Powerhouse and it needs to be reinforced in that way – like New York City – and tall, mid-sized and low-rise buildings all play their role.”
Sarah agrees: “I used to look at these blocks and think I wouldn’t want to live in them. But now I recognise that they offer so much more than just a living space, they offer a completely different way of living.
“Not everyone wants the constraints of having a mortgage and living in a house with a garden, they want flexibility and somewhere they can just walk out of the door and be in the heart of the city with everything it has to offer.”
Collyhurst resident Anne and her friend Donna, who are fighting to learn more about the possible demolition of their homes under the Northern Gateway masterplan, are not so sure. For them, the high-rise boom represents the “greed” of developers and investors, and the death of the cosy communities they have lived in for decades and know and love.
“There has to be change, there has to be development, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be at the price of completely ripping down something good,” says Donna.
“They don’t build homes like they did with ours [in the 1960s and 1970s] – those high-rise flats are just shoeboxes, or…garages with windows. I think they’ve ruined our town.” There’s little community there, the pair agree.
But Tim Heatley, co-founder of Capital & Centric and the only developer interviewed over the course of series despite the BBC’s attempts to get others involved, says it’s possible to have new development and a “community vibe” – and that is what his schemes are trying to create by targeting only owner-occupiers.
His position on the PRS market is clear. “[We’re not building] this transient massive complex with loads of people renting,” he says. “It’s different. These are their hopes and dreams all here behind this door. This is our big gamble, that people value a sense of community over everything else.”
West Tower’s investor, Legal & General Investment Management, does not agree that PRS and community are incompatible concepts. Its head of build-to-rent Dan Batterton tells the BBC: “We let people paint and decorate and have really long leases. These are not just investment properties – they are communities, and people’s homes.
“We want renting to be seen as a positive choice.”
There was a lot in the final episode of Manctopia, and much to unpack. What started as a surface-skimming representation of a complex industry became a warm and thought-provoking exploration of the factors that turn a pile of bricks and mortar into a person’s home.