Jonathan Schofield has the intelligence and it's good news for a terrible building

We’ve known for a year or two that Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was all set to create hundreds of jobs in Manchester. It’s also been an open secret that Britain’s spy agency is going to be based in Heron House, in Albert Square. GCHQ plan to start moving in staff before the year is out. 

A spokesperson (might have) told Confidential: “It’s clear the Christmas Markets need some digital surveillance. We think there might be something sinister hidden in those bratwursts, it’s clearly not food lurking in there.”

Heron House also hosts the greatest pub in Manchester, one which people who like good booze, fine grub and a pleasant environment have never been inside. This is The Slug and Lettuce, which will be renamed The Bug and Encryption. Heron House has also been the location for the Manchester registry office where, in future, people will be able to marry secretly, with only a few Russian wiretappers for witnesses.

The resource we’re talking about is human. Manchester has 100,000 students and a large number of established digital professionals.

Joking aside, this is superb news for the city and the North West. GCHQ will bring 1000 quality jobs into the city centre. Manchester has been chosen because it offers resources for the agency which are much greater in a city centre than in its traditional rural or smaller town settings, such as Cheltenham, Bude and Scarborough. 

The resource we’re talking about is human. Here, there are 100,000 students, as well as a well-established and large number of highly skilled digital professionals. MediaCityUK, for example, now contains the largest number of media programmers in Europe. This will fit very well with desire for GCHQ to use ‘cutting edge technology and technical ingenuity to identify and disrupt threats to the UK’. 

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Heron House before recent remediation work by 5Plus Architects

Speaking about the move to Manchester, a GCHQ chief in The Sunday Times, said: “There is no barbed wire fence here. We have announced we are here and our building is here. Top secret intelligence being done in a city centre is a revolutionary thing.”

Heron House, is however, in some respects, a protected space with a castle-like curtain wall around a big courtyard. It began life in the 1980s as a huge drab lump of a thing from a dreadful period in British architecture. This was design created through a desire not to offend but which ultimately caused offence. Architects were stung by criticism of the earlier Brutalist concrete structures of the sixties and early seventies and reacted with this sort of rubbish, supposedly using traditional materials, in this case a weird chocolate orange species of brick.

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GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham

The architects of Heron House were Leach Rhodes Walker and their design was laughably inappropriate as a foil for Manchester’s glorious neo-Gothic Town Hall directly opposite. The recent conversion work for GCHQ by 5Plus Architects has improved Heron House, lightened its bulkiness somewhat, but much of that brickwork still remains.

The good news is the building now has a significant and long-term tenant bringing loads of quality jobs. One last thing, GCHQ was established in 1919 to work alongside MI5 and MI6 to use intelligence to thwart threats to the UK. It used to be based at Bletchley Park. This creates a nice link with all the Alan Turing memorials in Manchester, as Turing was instrumental in cracking the code of the German Enigma machine at Bletchley Park during WWII. 

It should be noted as well, that there is an existing city centre office in the UK in London, albeit much much smaller than the Manchester GCHQ centre. This was established in 2017 and is an off-shoot of GCHQ, called the National Cyber Security Centre.