City council and the Government Property Agency plan low carbon office destination (with bad graphics)

It’s been an eyesore for years. 

The former Central Retail Park on Great Ancoats Street is a mess of concrete platforms and brick fields. The site has been marooned since 2021 following a campaign by Trees Not Cars, supported by Extinction Rebellion, blocked Manchester City Council from using the space as a temporary 440-space car park. The Council lost due to a high-handed approach in assuming they’d win against the presumed ragtag protesters. 

They were wrong. 

The result has been the stagnation of the site and a blot on the landscape

The main argument used by Trees Not Cars was about air quality and how this may affect the health of kids at New Islington Primary School, despite the school being in an elevated position behind a large wall. The judicial review also found the council had been wrong to recommend planning approval based on an incorrect air quality assessment and bad traffic analysis.

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Protesters in 2021 stage ‘die in’ at Central Retail Park Image: Confidentials

The council’s view was articulated by Sir Richard Leese, the council leader at the time. He said: “When the Council agreed to buy out the lease on the site we also agreed to temporary uses including car parking to meet the cost of purchase and holding costs, costs of around £2m a year, whilst the master planning and marketing of the site took place. In the longer term we do need to recover at least £40m from the site.”

The result of the farcical affair has been the stagnation of the site and a blot on the landscape. On balance it would probably have been better if the cash-strapped city council had won their case and gained extra money for services from parking fees. 

2024 01 15 Central Retail Park
The current desolation of the Central Retail park site Images: Confidentials

After prompting from last week this press release was sent out.

‘The Council is in late-stage negotiations to begin the redevelopment of part of the former retail park by the Government Property Agency (GPA) to develop a new low carbon office destination.   

‘The Council agreed an updated Strategic Regeneration Framework (SRF) for the land in March 2023 setting out the high-level principles for development at the site, including low carbon, commercial office space and high-quality green space that will support continued economic growth and accommodate 7,000 new and existing civil service roles.   

‘The GPA has been exploring options in Manchester and the North West to meet the needs of civil servants as part of the Government’s commitment to locate more services outside of London and support the Levelling Up agenda.  

‘The initial development proposals by GPA would look to create a new digital campus and office space, with the first planning application expected later this summer – supporting the need for new office amenity in this part of Manchester's city centre.  

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Er...the city council's unilluminating graphic for the scheme Image: Manchester City Council

The press release continues. 

‘In turn, the remainder of the programme of regeneration will deliver significant new green space to the site, opening access to Cotton Field Park beyond for the first time from Great Ancoats Street.  

‘The site will also support new walking and cycling routes, linking other active travel routes through Ancoats and the Northern Quarter to better connect the city centre.  

‘Further detail about the delivery of the new green space and later phases of the development programme will be made available later this year.’

Councillor Bev Craig has said: "We have big ambitions for this site, and it has the potential to accommodate thousands of jobs, create a new green public space and gateway through to Cotton Field Park for the first time, while developing highly sustainable office space – and in time create an ecosystem that will support new businesses to grow in the future.   

“This is great news for Manchester, and we are working closely with the GPA to bring these proposals forward. In them we have found a development partner that shares our vision for the site, which supports the continued growth of Manchester through sustainable, high-quality development. 

“It is very welcome that we can finally bring this long-term brownfield piece of land back into active use and marks the beginning of the end for the 20-year regeneration story that has transformed this corner of our city centre.”

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Another unilluminating graphic for the scheme I

The timeframe is unclear but sooner the better should be the policy.

A further interesting aspect of the Central Retail Park site is how it underlines how the city centre has changed. The decision in the late eighties to allow what was in effect an out-of-town shopping centre to be built in such a prominent location almost beggars belief - with hindsight. 

This was a city with a bleak view about much of its own fringe central areas when the retail sheds were completed in 1989. Many thought it unthinkable that Ancoats (and New Islington, with its contrived name) might become some of the most popular city districts to live anywhere in the UK. Thankfully they were proved wrong and the odious retail park has disappeared. 

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Sketchy sketch of Central Retail Park Image: Manchester City Council

Finally, a note about the graphics provided by the council to accompany the press release. Not much to get your teeth into with these sketches, they are so vague as to be just about useless. So much so that we thought we’d have a go, bottom image. I mean, we’re not saying we need something as good as the unattributed Renaissance image of The Ideal City from the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino below but Jeez give us a clue.  

2024 01 15 Formerly Piero Della Francesca  Ideal City  Galleria Nazionale Delle Marche Urbino 2
The Ideal City from the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche Image: Wikimedia
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Our go at what the Central Retail Park site might look like - oh and we thought it jolly to add a viaduct with a train and a ship Image: Picasso Confidential (if you want to use this image don't bother asking)

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