The BBC documentary on Manchester’s property boom struggled to portray the nuances of the city’s development industry, but the co-founder of developer Capital & Centric who starred in the series said the show was “phenomenal” in terms of raising its profile, reports Dan Whelan.
“The reaction has been off the charts. It was massive,” Tim Heatley told Place North West in an interview.
On a recent trip to the Lake District, the developer said he was stopped by people who wanted to talk about the show. “People are absolutely fascinated by Manchester. The scale, number and pace [of development projects] is mind-bending. In Manchester, we live in a bubble so we think it’s normal, but to a lot of other cities it’s insane.”
The four-part series, which took 20 months to film, told the story of the booming private rented sector, and delved into the lives of those losing out as a result of Manchester’s regeneration.
There was a focus throughout the series on public fears that a lack of affordable homes is forcing people on lower incomes to move further away from Manchester city centre. As such, Heatley – as the only private developer interviewed by the BBC – risked being perceived in a negative context.
After the first episode, during which Heatley said Manchester’s development boom could not afford to fail, much of the reaction on social media was negative.
“There were some people – a small group – after the first episode aired, who had a go at me saying I was part of the problem. Others said it was a disaster for me, that’s social media for you.”
But, while the developer seems pleased overall with how the show went, he admits it was always going to be impossible to change some people’s opinions. “If you have an entrenched view that developers are bad, then that is what you will see.”
Still, Heatley does not think it is fair that developers should have to contribute to affordable housing. “I don’t see any food retailers providing affordable food or utility providers or car retailers,” he said, pointing out that they choose the segment of the market they wish to tap.
That being said, he is not opposed to the idea of entering the affordable housing sector. Capital & Centric is developing a 100% affordable scheme as part of the burgeoning Piccadilly East neighbourhood. “We’re not obliged to do it, but it’s the right thing to do,” Heatley said.
In one episode, the developer is depicted unveiling plans for affordable homes on land at Buile Hill Park in Salford. However, the project – the proceeds of which would have gone towards restoring the dilapidated Buile Hill Mansion – was rejected by residents at a consultation meeting, on the grounds that it featured too many units.
“People want affordable homes to be built but not always near their homes. Some people think such housing will be full of all sorts of undesirables when it’s usually key workers,” Heatley said.
The issue for residents with the Buile Hill proposal was a misconception that the homes would be built on the “green grass of the park” as Heatley put it on camera.
“The public didn’t understand what it was,” he told Place North West. “We wanted to build stunning homes on brownfield land. Some 250,000 people live in Salford but the decision was made by a quarter of the people in that room.”
Despite the televised failure of his attempts to get the project off the ground, Heatley has not forgotten about Buile Hill Park. “We are still looking at solutions and we would still like to help,” he said.
Heatley, whose company is also working to deliver plans for residential schemes in Rochdale and Stockport, is keen to stress that he had no editorial input in the creation of the series, despite what some viewers claimed.
“Some people said I had paid to be on it.” Heatley said, adding that he developed a thick skin as the series continued to air.
“A lot of the people who complained are activists, and I get that,” he said. “If something doesn’t suit an organisation’s narrative or agenda it will make them angry, and that’s what it did.
“If you are a bit more open-minded and less cynical, you will see how important developers are to the structural and cultural fabric of a city.”
As the series went on, the criticism from the sidelines died down but on-screen problems arose for Capital & Centric.
The firm’s Crusader Mill scheme, a 200-apartment mill conversion targeting owner-occupiers rather than buy-to-let investors, was plagued by delays.
On more than one occasion, the BBC showed Heatley in an apparent stand-off with would-be residents, angry that their apartments were not yet complete.
“I was gutted about it. Sometimes things don’t go well but ultimately the buck stops with me,” he said.
Major delays to a large scheme are not ideal at the best of times, even less so when you have television cameras following you around. But Heatley resisted the urge to shoo the cameras away.
“As a business, we make mistakes but we always put them right and face up to them. We told the producers to come along [to the meetings with residents].
“You might ask why on earth would we do that, but we were doing everything we possibly could to fix [the problems]. We had nothing to hide but it was tough to watch back,” he said.
Crusader Mill is still “a few months away” from completion but all the major issues have been resolved, according to Heatley.
The developer admits that part of his motivation for appearing on the programme was to raise Capital & Centric’s profile – but the main reason was to try to educate the public about the industry.
“We thought there was more to property development that the public needed to know,” he explained. “We knew that we would never be able to explain it all because it is very, very complicated but I think it was an interesting programme that engaged a lot of people.”
Ultimately, it will take more than a four-part BBC documentary for people to fully understand the nuances of the industry and even more to convince detractors that not all developers are bad.
From a personal perspective, though, Heatley said he has both enjoyed and endured his time in the limelight, and has drawn his own conclusions from the experience.
“Everyone said I came across as honest. Which is not necessarily a compliment. But if people trust you because you’re honest, you’ve got a chance.”