On the side of the angels? Can commercial development and city centre living co-exist in Manchester?

By David Keyworth

On a January weekend in 2010 a police van had taken up residency on Angel Street, on the northern edge of Manchester city centre, and a small team of forensic officers were going about their business.

Next month the BBC website carried this headline: ‘Woman’s skeleton found by workmen’.  The skull of a woman, aged between 20 – 30-years-old, was on the site being prepared for the Co-op’s new head quarters (a recreation featured in a Crimewatch programme this year.)

CSI at CIS went the grim quip amongst local residents and Co-op staff in the nearby 25-story, solar-panelled tower.

For the Friends of Angel Meadow group (FOAM), the presence of the workmen raised questions not just about the past but also about the area’s future. Would commercial development inevitably disrupt residential life?

These days, if you mention Angel Meadow, most people will probably assume you’re referring to the park – one of Manchester’s “green lungs”. A few hundred years ago Angel Meadow was a pastoral idyll. Then came industrialisation.

In the nineteenth century it absorbed economic migrants, many of them Irish workers.  Friedrich Engels, co-author with Karl Max of the Communist Manifesto, would have recognised Angel Meadow as an enclave bound by Rochdale Road in the east and the River Irk in the west.

In his 1844 classic: The Condition of the Working Class. Engels wrote: “If any one wishes to see in how little space a human being, how little air – and such air – he can breathe, how little of civilisation he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither.”

Thankfully, the area today is in much better shape. Apartment blocks abound, with names like Meadow View. Just across Angel Street, construction company BAM is hard at work on NOMA Phase 1, the new headquarters for the Co-op. Its crane’s security lights flash around it at night.

It’s the first stage in the Co-ops 20 acre, £800 million ‘mixed-use city centre redevelopment’ 

For FOAM it is not the development itself that is of concern but the proposal for Angel Street, adjacent to the park, to become a  ‘three lane-highway’, as part of an altered inner ring-road.  A group called Stop the Ring Road (STRR), an off-shoot from FOAM, was created to voice the concerns. 

Emma Krijnen-Kemp is the Acting Chair of FOAM and often walks her dogs in the park.

She says: “Angel Meadow is one of the few green spaces in the city centre.”

She adds that it’s a place people with families can go at the weekend.

She fears that the road plans could disturb the park’s tranquillity because of the volume of traffic.

Richard Long, FOAM’s Acting Director, adds that the potential noise and traffic pollution could negatively affect the investments of both new owners and landlords with buy-to-let apartments.

FOAM and STRR have criticised Manchester City Council, for what they believe was an ill-timed and poorly communicated Consultation Document in December 2010 regarding the proposed road lay out.

So, can commercial and urban development ever co-exist happily with city-centre living?  It’s a question that’s not going to go away – with new developments like Salford Quay’s Media City up and running and the Co-op talking of its plans including 10,000 jobs.

The government and its Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, is keen, after all, to talk about a localism agenda – where communities have more input into planning decisions.

So far, the FOAM/Co-op/Manchester City Council (MCC) model seems to be one of suspicious neighbours starting to talk over the garden fence.  The Co-op set up a consultation day in March, at the nearby Crowne Plaza hotel and there have been further meetings. 

Richard says: “FOAM welcome the engagement that has already taken place between ourselves, the Council and the Co-op and recognise, with pressures on financial budgets within MCC, that the next phases of regeneration may require a different approach.”

A Co-op spokesperson talks of proposals for traffic calming measures. The spokesperson adds: “In developing the proposals to change the road network around the site, we are working closely with local residents.”

Emma explains how she approached BAM to help in FOAM’s upkeep and restoration work. A BAM newsletter informs passers-by that they’ve cleared overgrown trees and carried out other work in the park. It also says that BAM representatives be meeting with the city council and local residents.

They add: “We are confident that by developing NOMA in conjunction with residents and businesses the new area will have an overwhelmingly positive impact for the region.”

Local residents have not, however, been promised a fundamental re-routing of the proposed ring road.

It’s Sunday morning in Angel Meadow. The construction site is quiet. A mother plays with her daughter; young people sit around in a circle, a grey squirrel darts up a tree. Trams and trains rattle in and out of Victoria Station – itself set for re-development.

The information boards tell me that St Michael’s church was demolished in 1935, when, ironically enough, the residential population was in decline.  But St Michael’s Flags records eighteenth century deaths, many of them children.

In his 1816 work: A Picture of Manchester.  Joseph Aston recorded an ‘economical method of interring the bodies of the dead’ where: “The cavern of death is then closed, and covered up with earth; and then another pit is prepared.”

There are later reports, quoted by the BBC website, of bones being exposed and  human skulls kicked about for football.

Mr Aston might have been cheered by the more recent history that the noticeboard records. One where Angel Meadow benefited from the work of FOAM, council funding and the off-shoots of commercial growth.

The board concludes: “The challenge now is to make sure that Angel Meadow is maintained as a safe and vibrant place long into the future.”

Local residents might still be troubled by a similar issue to the one that concerned Engels.  How do you preserve spaces for living when the city’s development is in the fast lane?

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