I live in Ancoats – the world’s first industrial suburb – the place that prompted Friedrich Engels to write about the horrors of factory life. It was a place of migrants living in slums, but also a place where young women could make their own living, where trade unions were born and where radicals gathered in the street to hear the latest news of rebellion in Ireland.
The philanthropist, Thomas Horsfall founded a museum and art gallery where working class people could experience the culture denied to many of their class. And two families migrated from south of Rome to bring Manchester the gift of ice-cream sold in glasses from bicycles.
But as the mills closed, the migrants moved on and the civic leaders moved to the rural towns of Cheshire – expanding villages like Alderley Edge, now the home of wealthy footballers and the country’s highest per capita sale of champagne.
When I first moved to Manchester this was a no-go area, a neglected council estate with derelict buildings, after the offices and shops closed the city centre was deserted. And then regeneration came to Manchester – the Labour city council used the experience of the failed Olympic bids to build a partnership with international investors and start a residential and office building boom. The successful Commonwealth Games bid led to investment in East Manchester – one of the poorest parts of the city – creating a stadium and sporting centres which provided a home for the UK’s successful cycling team, for Manchester City and for further investment partnerships with the UAE, which will eventually see a sports university.
As more resident and tourist friendly areas like Castlefield and Salford Quays with their cultural attractions were filled with flats, the council and developers turned their attention to old Manchester. The shabby, but character filled Northern Quarter became hipster central – old-style shops replaced by bars selling artisan beers staffed by young men sporting full beards and sleeve tattoos.
And finally Ancoats saw the first construction sites – as the mills and warehouses were converted into flats and small businesses moved into the area. The council designated the area as a ‘food hub’, which means that we do not have a Starbucks, but we do have craft breweries, vegan shops, an award winning pizzeria and young people opening their first restaurants after having started as pop-ups at food fairs.
The canal has been cleared, there is an active residents’ association and every week the announcement of a new commercial or civic development. But as their leases run out, even the old corner shops move on, the big box stores are replaced by niche cafés, bars and shops. So where do people work and if they have no capital, where do they live? The original residents ‘decanted’ to the deprived council estates of East Manchester see their children unable to afford to live in the area and blame the new residents. And they do not have the skills to work in the small creative businesses.
But the problem is much greater than young, single people taking advantage of a cheaper area or small businesses starting out in life. The city council has neglected social housing at the expense of profit, but they face a campaign of cuts from central government and the ‘right to buy’ policy which saw the council lose their best stock at a loss and have no resources to replace it.
As residents we must ensure that the character and heart of the area is not destroyed, we do not want to become another development grafted on to an existing resentful community. We do not want to be surrounded by empty blocks of flats owned by overseas investors, we do not only want to have organic produce and artisan bread, we want ordinary shops – chemists, supermarkets and a community centre and we want a mix of population. Young, single people, but also families and older people who still want the amenities of city life.
Our predecessors in Ancoats fought to build a better life for themselves and today we must also fight to preserve the best of the past whilst creating a new future for all.