Save Britain’s Heritage spearheads drive to get 40-storey St Michael’s development called in for independent scrutiny

Communities secretary Sajid Javid is being urged to call in the decision to approve Hodder & Partners’ 40-storey St Michael’s development in Manchester for a public inquiry overseen by a planning inspector.

Campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage, backed by the Victorian Society and Manchester Civic Society, is questioning the balancing process by which Manchester City Council was able to offset the scheme’s impact on existing historic buildings against public benefits offered by the new scheme. The Twentieth Century Society also supports the call-in request.

Save director Henrietta Billings said the scheme’s developers – a consortium fronted by former Manchester United stars Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, with the backing of Chinese investor BCEGI Group – were “cashing in” with a tower when a “world-class contextual development” was possible.

She said the proposals were being foisted on Manchester’s Deansgate/Peter’s Street Conservation Area, which predominantly features 19th-century buildings of three to six storeys. Billings added that there were 72 listed buildings within 250m of the scheme – among them the grade I-listed Town Hall and Albert Memorial.

“Conservation areas are meant to protect important streets and spaces from exactly this type of overscaled scheme,” she said. “We need an independent public inquiry to fully assess its impact.”

St Michael's by Hodder & Partners - December 2017 incarnation

Night view of Hodder & Partners’ latest proposals for the St Michael’s development

Manchester councillors gave a “minded to approve” verdict on Hodder’s plans at a meeting last week, less than three months after they were submitted for perusal. If Javid calls in the scheme, a planning inspector will be appointed to review the proposals and report to the secretary of state for a final decision, a process that is unlikely to conclude within a year.

The Hodder scheme is valued at £200m and would deliver up to 189 apartments and a 216-room hotel in the main tower. A separate 10-storey block would deliver 13,721sq m of new commercial space.

But the proposals would come at the cost of demolishing the Manchester Reform Synagogue and all but the façade of Bootle Street Police Station, as well as changing the city’s skyline and the setting of listed structures in the city’s core civic area.

Hodder was appointed to the scheme after earlier proposals by Ken Shuttleworth’s Make Architects were withdrawn by the developers because of multi-faceted objections.

Make’s scheme would have delivered broadly the same quantity of space as Hodder’s, but did so via 21- and 31-storey towers located in different parts of the site footprint, off Jackson’s Row in the city centre.

Hodder’s scheme retains the police station façade, which would have been lost by the Make proposals. It also retains 19th-century pub the Sir Ralph Abercromby, which the Make scheme would have demolished.

Manchester Reform Synagogue

Source: Historic England Archive

The Reform Synagogue in Manchester, earmarked for demolition to make way for the St Michael’s scheme

Government heritage adviser Historic England said it was unable to support the Hodder proposals on heritage grounds because of the “cumulative harm that would be caused to highly graded listed buildings”, but it stopped short of objecting to the plans – a position seen as crucial by the developers. (See file)

Recommending the scheme for approval to members of the city council’s planning and highways committee, planning officers accepted that the scheme would have a negative impact on some heritage assets, but said it represented “an opportunity to address an identified need for a prestigious mixed-use scheme of the highest quality” at a strategic location in the city centre.

“The development would create a new landmark for Manchester, setting new standards in design and quality of accommodation, which will reinforce the city’s position nationally and internationally,” they said.

“It would respond to demands from businesses, residents and visitors, and aid the city’s economic growth and prosperity.”

Officers agreed with Historic England’s assessment that the harm caused to heritage buildings “individually and cumulatively” would be less than substantial, but noted that in the case of the Albert Memorial it would be at the “upper end of that scale”.

However they urged councillors to back the proposals if they shared Historic England’s view and were “satisfied that there is a clear and convincing justification for this harm and it should be outweighed by public benefits”.

They concluded: “This is finely balanced judgement as the impacts on the historic environment are high as are the public benefits. Having considered all of these matters very carefully, officers do believe that these public benefits would outweigh the significant harm that would occur.”

The report signalled that Javid, whose department was renamed the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in January, “would like the opportunity to consider whether call-in is appropriate for this application”.

Make and Gary Neville's St Michael's scheme - St Michael's Square and the towers

Make Architects’ St Michael’s scheme, withdrawn in 2017