• Opinion

Why Manchester’s new design guidance is something to be celebrated

From our window in the soon-to-be St. John’s Quarter, we can see a skyline peppered with cranes at work on numerous sites across Manchester. Our informal ‘crane survey’ tallies with Deloitte’s official one: residential development has reached an all-time high within the city.

It is against this background of renewed development that Manchester City Council published the final version of its ‘Residential Quality Guidance’ at the end of last year. This in itself is to be applauded – with so much new housing being built, it goes without saying that quality should not be compromised for the sake of quantity – and we certainly don’t want to follow in the footsteps on other cities where this hasn’t always been the case.

With the focus on design quality and space standards, it’s clear the MCC guide has taken its cues from the GLA’s own standards; no bad thing when you consider they were well-evidenced, generally well-received and taken as the starting point for the national standards now in place.

One particular new statutory power in the MCC guide goes beyond the GLA standards though: to require that contractors retain incumbent architects for the delivery stages or, if not possible, that funds are made available to appoint them as design champions to the council. This is a radical step and so fundamental to protecting design quality at the construction stages. This shows a real flexing of council muscle and it will be interesting to see whether it is adopted by others commissioning new housing.

Another positive move is that developers will be compelled to undertake early consultation with accredited managing agents to devise a management strategy, and for this to be adhered to ‘for the life of the building’. This will have a huge impact on the ongoing quality of the built environment and we hope others will follow Manchester’s lead in implementing such a measure.

There are also references to some of the challenges we undoubtedly face: how to enshrine affordability and avoid the dangerous price escalation seen in London, which is of increasing concern to the UK’s crop of ‘second’ cities. The guide also notes the prevalence of PRS schemes, meeting a demand that would previously have been the territory of first-time buyers. The British Property Federation reports that at least 28 build to rent developments are planned in the city (as of July 2016), and these are not just small apartments for the now long-present, young professional population (estimated at 60% higher than the UK average), but also two, three and four bedroom houses. This month’s much trumpeted (but ultimately disappointing) housing white paper acknowledged the shift away from ownership, but figures reveal that only 6% of people are renting by choice.

There are some grey areas though and a close look at semantic differences between Manchester’s and London’s guidance is revealing. To take one example, the London standards set out instances where single aspect dwellings should be avoided: north facing, with high exposure to noise, or with three or more bedrooms. Manchester, on the other hand, separates these issues; requiring that ‘where possible’ living spaces should have direct sunlight, and north facing accommodation (or 45 degrees either side), should be avoided. Of course, it’s always possible to get sunlight into a living room; the underlying issue is that doing so will often have an impact on block layout and density – and therefore numbers. We don’t want the provision and quality of Manchester’s new housing to be subject to interpretation. So by making guidance absolutely clear, local planners will be better armed to ensure this document has teeth and that quality housing is actually delivered.

This guidance is undoubtedly welcome, and we particularly applaud the aspiration to keep architects involved from concept through to the delivery stage. It’s great that Manchester has set out its stall to demand quality from the designers working within its bounds. Now it’s just down to us, and the developers, contractors and planners, to bring it to fruition.

Gillian Harrison, Senior Architect, Levitt Bernstein
21 February 2017