Rochdale councillor John Blundell offers his opinion on a huge building that sits empty most of the day
The new whopping great big arena being proposed by American entertainment bigwigs Oak View Group would continue the transformation of East Manchester. If it were to be built, it would be another European standard for Manchester and would provide much needed jobs for a very deprived area.
The naysayers, of course, bolt out the gate to point out everything that is wrong with the scheme: it’s too big, it will generate traffic (hopefully or else it would be empty), it’s not in the city centre so could kill central restaurant trade. Who knew how much the current arena single-handedly powers our economy, eh?
It squats on the land required to deal with the rail capacity issues at Victoria
I recently studied an old map of Rochdale, which showed a cricket ground (now an ASDA), a Hippodrome and a cinema all in the heart of the town centre. Great tower blocks were built, and are, to provide hundreds of punters for what was a booming town centre.
It’s for these reasons I have some sympathy with the critics. If you strip out the main attractors of footfall, vibrancy and excitement, why is it then such a surprise when you are then left with an empty, deprived, rundown shell?
This situation here, however, is not that cut and dry. The Manchester Arena was built at time when the city had been on the wane and we were trying to re-assert ourselves as a cultural and economic powerhouse. By putting the arena, and an enormous car park, next to Victoria Station it would act as a major attraction easily accessible to the wider region.
By the nineties, some platforms at Victoria had been closed and the Exchange Station razed to the ground, all as a result of the era of the car. The Arena - for a period, no doubt - drove footfall and provided customers for the city’s eating places and watering holes, but now acts more as a barrier to the city dragging in greater volumes of its citizens as it squats on the land required to deal with the rail capacity issues at Victoria.
I am of the firm belief that if north GM rail capacity is not dealt with, the consequences for the city centre will be far greater than the loss of visitors generated if the arena was to go. With the build of the Ordsall Curve, and the plans for platforms 15 and 16 at Piccadilly, it’s likely that if that site had still been vacant today, there is little chance they would allow planning for that arena’s build.
The spine of activity along this railway (originating from proximity to what had clustered around the Irwell) comprising of Deansgate, Spinningfields, Castlefield and Salford makes this land too important to our economy for a building that sits empty for most of the day. Arguably this collection of stations - Oxford Road, Victoria, Salford Central - is more important than Piccadilly Station is in regard to our economy.
There is another option to deal with the capacity issues, which would be to tunnel under the station and include a line to connect with proposals being worked up for Piccadilly and Cornbrook (another pinch point) which could result in an underground for Manchester. The cost of this will be astronomical and iswhich died decades ago.
We also have to put things in to today’s context. The Metrolink would take you to the new venue’s door in twelve minutes from Piccadilly Gardens and, if we are to become a functioning city region, we have to start thinking beyond the borders of the inner ring road. I welcome a new £350m venue to act as a catalyst for this as the Etihad manages fine without being slap bang in the region’s centre.
Another moot point is that the city centre is no longer grasping for anything it can take. We are about to see the Factory Arts Centre open its doors, the Hallé’s extension will soon be finished and the city centre is now a very different place compared to when I was a toddler.
No need to be dewy eyed about it. The arena is amazingly ugly and acts as more of a border to the city centre, reducing the desirability of land north of it given it is an impenetrable fortress. Without the arena, a new station development, to solve the capacity issues, could incorporate new walkways, development and opportunities so that north of the station might start to share in our renewed prosperity.
We know we need more capacity at Victoria to feed the boom and we want stadia of this scale and standard. It’s time we knocked down Manchester Arena, for us to finally see through the regeneration of East Manchester and to see the north of the city centre flourish.
John Blundell is a Labour councillor for Smallbridge and Firgrove, and the Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Business, Skills & Employment on Rochdale Council.