I love Manchester. I’m from Sheffield so, to me, it’s basically New York. But do I like it more now than when I was a teenager, dreaming of it longingly from the other side of the Pennines? I need to be honest about this. Like me, it has grown a bit ritzier down the years; its tastes have slowly extended, like my own, into smarter shops, better restaurants and slightly silly coffee places. But I worry for it, too; its surface prosperity unnerves me. The last time I visited (I’m there twice a year), it had, at moments, the feeling of a stage set. The Loewe handbags in an air-conditioned, half-empty Selfridges, the homeless men sweating it out in Piccadilly Gardens: the uncomfortable and stupid proximity of these things, the feeling that something was in the process of going badly wrong, seemed, looking back, almost to anticipate what we’re going through now, our city centres suddenly so mockingly pointless.
The BBC’s four-part documentary series, Manctopia: Billion Pound Property Boom, is nothing very special. Its vibe is more reality TV than deep dive; made before the advent of Covid-19, the numbers involved must already be wildly out of date. But with its cast of property developers and estate agents, of buyers, renters and the homeless, it speaks quite loudly to all this – to the sense that Manchester might be about to go “pop”, and not in a good club night sort of way.
What’s striking, though, is that even those with an outlandishly huge stake in the glitz seem anxious about what may lie ahead. Tim Heatley, a developer who is investing £2m a week in derelict land near Piccadilly Station, is a case in point. Having evicted some squatters from a building he plans to convert into luxury flats, he described the mess they’d left not as a disgrace or an outrage – this, you might have predicted – but as “a metaphor”. In their empty cider cans and ossified dog turds, he could see both his future profits (who, he wondered aloud, was going to spend £1m on a high-rise apartment if prostitutes were still working the streets below?), and all of the pain and strife involved in “creating a place” – his euphemism for tidying the area up, and making it altogether more desirable.
It was impossible not to feel deeply for Christina Hughes, a mother of two desperately searching for an affordable home, having been priced out of the place where she’d grown up (Eccles); and for Richard Ravencroft, a former school caretaker who’d become homeless following a breakdown (his brother had died in his arms). But we know already that the housing situation in cities such as Manchester, and all across Britain, is both iniquitous and shaming.
I was more transfixed by Jennie Platt, an estate agent who spoke of the luxury penthouses she was renting and selling with quite astonishingly casual aplomb, as though it’s perfectly normal – a bargain, even! – for a flat to cost £8,000 a month in rent (much of Manchester’s more up- market accommodation is owned by overseas investors). In one property, she lifted a lid on a gleaming counter to reveal a flat grill on which one could “fry eggs”. No previous tenant had ever used this before, she boasted to the young couple she was showing round; they would be the very first to enjoy this privilege. I couldn’t tell whether their laughter was down to bafflement – feel free to make the world’s most expensive omelette, kids – or crazed delight.
And then there was Helen Wilson, a fashion stylist (eyelashes like tarantulas) who’d left the grand country house she had shared with her husband for the thrills of solo inner-city living. Already renting a flat with wraparound balconies, now she wants to buy. Her budget – ha – is £1m, but so far, she just hasn’t found anything big enough. Big enough for what? Look, come on. She needs at least one room for her clothes. Understandably disconsolate – ha, again – she met Platt in a branch of the Ivy for a consoling chat. Platt advised her to be patient, to hang on for that longed-for floor in a converted mill. “It’s not like you’re living on the streets,” she told her client, her smile dipping graciously in the direction of her morning cappuccino.