Look Below The Skyline

The Manchester Paradox – how investment in housing continues to grow rapidly and yet levels of homelessness remain some of the highest in the country.

If you walk around Manchester with your head raised towards the sky all you will see is an endless array of cranes, scaffolding and sparkly glass skyscrapers. Construction is booming in Manchester, and this can only be a good thing, right? The North of England has long resented the influx of foreign investment into London, feeling neglected and left behind in a national economy that appears London-centric. However, in the years following George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” Policy which promoted trade links with China, pushed for serious devolution of power and encouraged extensive infrastructure investment, it seems like it’s finally Manchester’s time to shine.

Since the first Manchester-Beijing direct flight was launched in June 2016 there has been a 38% increase in Chinese visitors to Manchester. This ease of travel between China and Manchester has brought with it a huge amount of foreign investment and a subsequent boom in luxury property development.

Around 10,000 flats are currently being built in the city centre, while 2,000 were completed last year and 9,000 are expected to be built in the next 3 years. David Thame, a property journalist who has reported on the city for decades, describes this rise in residential construction as “unmatched in the western world”. An article by Manchester’s Finest listed the new developments commissioned across the city for 2019 which includes the Elizabeth Tower, a 52-storey apartment block with a swimming pool and royal garden, and the Dakota Deluxe Hotel, which will house 137 guest bedrooms, 19 suites, a 104-cover restaurant, champagne bar and a cigar garden.

It’s not just foreign investment that is causing this spike in residential construction. With London becoming increasingly unattainable for graduates to live in and the relocation of businesses from the South, such as a large part of the BBC moving to Salford, young professionals are choosing to settle in the city. With them they bring a demand for housing and it seems a generation of millennials are set to make Manchester their home. The growing popularity of the city has doubtlessly improved the lives of many aspiring people, opening up a whole new marketplace for goods and services, but it is hard not to wonder whether the gentrification of areas such as the Northern Quarter, has come at the expense of others.

Last March, The Guardian, reported that none of the 14,667 homes in big developments granted planning permission by the council from 2014-16 were set to be “affordable”. This is a shocking figure, and far from the government’s recommendation that city councils should ensure 20% of new housing developments are affordable. In central Manchester monthly rents have increased, on average, by more than £100 a year, year on year, according to campaigners. John Leech, a local Liberal Democrat councillor, describes the gentrification of parts of the city as a kind of “social cleansing” because those who have grown up here can no longer afford to stay and are effectively being pushed out.

If we avert our eyes from the glistening wealth that fills the skies and look to the grey pavements below, the lack of social housing in Manchester becomes shockingly apparent. Manchester has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the UK with new figures indicating that 21 homeless people died in the city in 2017. This figure is higher than that in any other local authority area in England and Wales. Rough sleeping has rocketed 18-fold in recent years and those on the street are the visible face of the housing crisis. The darker cloud, which is easier to ignore, is the invisible family homelessness crisis where families are being kicked out of their homes by landlords who see more profit can be made from charging higher rents to the newcomers to the city. With an undersupply of around 750 homes each year in the city-centre, families are being placed in hotels and B&B’s for indefinite amounts of time. The council is struggling to take into account human considerations of relatives’ and schools’ locations when rehousing families as there are currently 5,000 families officially classed as being in “urgent” need of social housing.

So, whilst Osborne’s policies have appeared to do great wonders for bringing investment into the city his austerity policies have been detrimental to the lives of those at the bottom of the housing market. In particular the Whitehall-imposed cuts in council tax benefits and emergency loans has meant the City Hall has had to carry out extensive benefit cuts and freezes. Local charities single out two specific policies that have had significant impacts on the amount of affordable housing available. Firstly, “no-fault evictions,” have become more likely as rising rents give landlords a reason to terminate tenancies and re-let. Secondly, the council has continually imposed squeezes and freezes on the local housing allowance (LHA). Andy Burnham, the Labour Party Mayor of Greater Manchester, has pledged to end rough sleeping by 2020 and is now tasked with reducing the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.

But is this a promise he is going to be able to keep? The devasting rise of homelessness in the UK in recent years is a systemic problem that requires not only a change in policy but a change in mind-set. Our market-orientated economy often leaves the most vulnerable behind and so investment needs to be encouraged away from where the greatest profit can be made and directed to those most in need of one of life’s most basic necessities – shelter. For Manchester to fulfil its potential as one of the greatest cities in Europe it needs to look to its streets before it can take to the skies.

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