The city could become an examplar of how urban centres can offer a way of life that is attractive and sustainable

It’s holiday season and Building is taking a staycation in Manchester: this August edition has zoomed in on the north of England’s biggest and most vibrant city, talking to those shaping its skyline, creating workspaces, building homes, designing space for leisure and fun.

But first, a little trip down memory lane. Back in 2006 the man who was known as Mr Manchester, the late great Tony Wilson, of Hacienda and Factory Records fame, guest-edited the magazine with his partner Yvette Livesey. The edition became a bit of a collector’s item because it was honoured with its very own FAC number (the cataloguing system Factory Records used for all its creative output – FAC 481, if you’re interested in tracking it down). At the time Wilson had the role of “regeneration adviser” for the city, and with Livesey he had a big vision to rejuvenate the Pennine towns to the north of Manchester.

Chloe McCulloch

Sadly, Wilson did not live to see these later plans through; he died in 2007 aged just 57. What would he think of his beloved city 16 years on from that special edition of Building? That’s one of the questions we put to Livesey, who continued to live in the region and is now married with a young family.

A strong theme that comes through her interview is the central role culture can and should play in placemaking. What was perhaps unusual about the “Madchester” era was how Wilson managed to bring so-called “creatives” together with local politicians and the money men. The party scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s Manchester was obviously about having a good time, but by Livesey’s account it also created an atmosphere of hope and self-belief where people who wanted to be a success and stay in the north made it possible to do just that.

>>Also read: Interview with Yvette Livesey

>>Also read: Building talks to Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham 

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, would no doubt understand this view better than most. At 52, he is of that generation that experienced Manchester’s outpouring of musical talent in its heyday, and even now he is partial to hosting a DJing slot paying homage to his favourite bands (read our interview with him).

Burnham is an experienced and skilled politician – having headed five government departments under the Labour government – and he knows this party-going, chips and gravy persona plays well with Mancunians: they have voted for him twice now.

Andy Burnham says more investment upfront would create a ‘Canary Wharf of the north’

Never one to talk his city down, you would expect him to say Tony Wilson’s vision of Manchester as a thriving city full of opportunities for young people and families has been achieved. And he does, citing successful regeneration in areas such as Ancoats and the Northern Quarter. The rapidly rising height of the buildings on the skyline he takes as an indicator of investor interest.


FAC 481 was the number assigned to the Building magazine guest edited by Wilson and Livesey, which carried the headline “Oh Manchester: A special issue of Building edited by Tony Wilson and Yvette Livesey and starring Britain’s most dynamic city.”

And while covid has hit Manchester’s commercial office sector hard, as it has everywhere else, there are signs it is starting to rebound. But now there is the sense that developers are more aware of the need to avoid creating a sterile office district feel and instead increase the mix of bars, restaurants and venues to attract workers back to the city centre.

So where is Manchester struggling and what is Burnham doing about it? Transport is top of his list of gripes, and specifically connections with other northern towns. The scrapping of the eastern leg of HS2 along with the downgrading of Northern Powerhouse Rail, a project that was meant to create fast links between Manchester and Leeds and beyond, has brought Burnham and other northern leaders together in fierce opposition. And it seems Liz Truss has been listening. Her pledge to revive the rail plans for the north and commit to levelling up if she wins the Tory leadership get the thumbs up from Burnham – more proof he puts place before party these days and will work with those who get things done in the north.

Another beef Burnham has is that Westminster would like to keep the HS2 redevelopment of Piccadilly station costs down as much as possible, running much of the new infrastructure above ground. Burnham says more investment upfront would mean building underground to maximise prime development land and create a “Canary Wharf of the north”. It’s a nice soundbite, and he will be hoping it cuts through as increasingly the country becomes preoccupied with surviving the onslaught of recession.

Where Burnham has started making inroads is with the Bee Network, a new green integrated transport system that aspires to give Mancunians the connectivity enjoyed by Londoners and it is hoped will help the city reach its net zero target by 2038. Burnham says he has taken cues from the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who is phasing out polluting vehicles in favour of active travel and the idea of the “15-minute city”. Manchester’s mayor clearly sees the opportunity to present a green vision for the future, one where the net zero agenda can boost skills and jobs.

Three decades ago, Tony Wilson and his entourage were creating a cultural legacy for post-industrial Manchester to build on. Today the challenge for the likes of Burnham is to keep that identity and momentum going, while forging ahead with bold visions for how urban centres can be the most attractive and low carbon way of living.

Chloë McCulloch is the editor of Building

Building’s Manchester week

RemakeMCR (002)

It’s holiday season and Building is taking a staycation in Manchester: this week we zoom in on the north of England’s biggest and most vibrant city, talking to those shaping its skyline, creating workspaces, building homes, designing space for leisure and fun. Online features coming up this week include:

  • Monday 15 August: How Yvette Livesey helped make modern Manchester with the late great music mogul and urban theorist Tony Wilson 
  • Tuesday 16 August: A run-down of some of the movers and shakers in Mancunian development
  • Wednesday 17 August: Mayfield Park is Manchester’s first new public park in a century
  • Thursday 18 August: Manchester’s offices market has a host of new schemes in the pipeline
  • Friday 19 August: Jodrell Bank has a new £20.5m visitor centre

You can also find all our Manchester articles in August’s print and digital edition out now

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