New plans to transform Manchester's main public square into 'one of the finest civic spaces in Europe' are revealed

ALBERT Square is to be extended as the £330m renovation of Manchester Town Hall proceeds.

The city’s main focus for events, from civic occasions - such as that held after the 22 May 2017 attacks - through to the Christmas Markets, is to grow by 20%. This will be achieved by snaffling up the roads in the square to the south and the west, leaving only Princess Street on the north side with vehicular and tram movements.

According to traffic surveys, fewer than 3,000 vehicles a day use this route and can be 'readily re-routed'. Bus stops and taxi ranks will be repositioned, so services such as Manchester sightseeing bus will have to start from an alternative location.

Confidential has always argued that Albert Square is too constrained in scale at the moment, so this entirely logical plan is to be welcomed. Indeed it’s a shame that traffic, aside from trams, can’t be halted on the Princess Street side as well, as is the case in St Peter’s Square. That would make for a truly impressive civic square.

Albert Square 3
New plans will see Albert Square grow by 20% and more pedestrianised

Still, with the recently announced plans to upgrade Lincoln Square and the stunning success of St Peter’s Square, the idea of walking through attractive, well-designed and crisp spaces from Deansgate to Oxford Road or Manchester Art Gallery is beguiling.

Of course further restrictions on traffic movements, such as those on the south and west sides of Albert Square will inevitably lead to more misery for drivers into and out of the city at pinch times. City planners must therefore look hard at easing problems elsewhere, starting with those idiotic and dangerous (especially for cyclists) road narrowing obstructions on Deansgate at the junctions with Liverpool Road and Quay Street.

These proposals will see it take its place among the very finest international public squares.

Councillor Bernard Priest, lead member for the Our Town Hall project, has said: “We are making significant progress on the ambitious project to safeguard, refurbish and restore the Town Hall while enhancing its surroundings.

“Albert Square is a much-loved public space where Mancunians and visitors come together for a huge range of cultural and civic events. It is, in many ways, the heart of Manchester. These proposals will see it take its place among the very finest international public squares.”

The design of the reconfigured square will also ‘enhance its safety, security and accessibility removing the need for the current concrete barrier around it and offering better infrastructure for major events.’

Mif 2013
Manchester International Festival takes over Albert Square

Albert Square was almost an accidental creation.

When Prince Albert, the nigh-universally popular husband of Queen Victoria, died young at the age of 42 in 1861, the nation was shocked. Manchester had a particular affinity with the intelligent German prince who had so frequently supported progress, industry, creativity and education.

Funds were raised and a design for a memorial including a statue by Matthew Noble, housed under a flamboyant Gothic structure by Thomas Worthington, was put together.

But where to put it?

The obvious place was Piccadilly Gardens, but that didn’t work because the largest building on the site, the now demolished Manchester Royal Infirmary building, was Classical and the memorial was Gothic.

Then someone suggested a seedy part of town which faced the town yard where dust carts and the odd fire engine were stored amongst many other things. By the time the memorial was completed in 1867, the adjacent area, that town yard, had been chosen as the site of the Town Hall which opened for business ten years later.

Albert Memorail Albert Square
Prince Albert stood proud in his memorial on Albert Square

The demolition to create Albert Square meant the clearance of a hundred buildings crammed on the site, including the Engraver’s Arms, the Manchester Coffee Roasting Works, a coal yard, a smithy, warehouses and back to back houses.  

Somehow that history makes the broad and very democratic use of Albert Square in 2018 more apt. With the 20% gain at least there will be more space to breathe for these events. Although whether as locals we want even more room for Christmas sausage stalls complete with over-priced lager is another matter. Let’s just hope that the example of St Peter’s Square is taken to ensure the square is as uncluttered as possible and that the promise of a truly international standard square is realised.