When Julie Twist left her office on 23 March, she sobbed all the way home. Boris Johnson was about to shut down the country for an undetermined period and she had no idea if the estate agency she had built up over the past 26 years could survive a global pandemic.
In 1994, Twist began selling apartments in central Manchester. She was one of the first estate agents to believe people would want to live in converted mills in the middle of a post-industrial city.
It had been a tricky few years, with cladding disputes rendering many of Manchester’s high-rises unsellable post-Grenfell. But with more new apartment blocks finished over the past year than any time since 2006, and a further 12,400 units under construction, things were looking up for what the hype merchants had nicknamed “Manc-hattan”.
Then the coronavirus crisis came and suddenly she was at home in a village near Warrington, wondering if it was over for urban living.
“I would have hated to be in a flat during lockdown,” she said. “We had one guy in our office who was in a flat with no balcony and his building was being re-clad. All his windows were wrapped. He couldn’t see a thing for three months. I was thinking people would have just wanted to get out of the city and find a house with a garden.”
Walking around the deserted city one day during lockdown, Tim Heatley, a property developer, had similar fears.
“I was really scared, thinking: is everybody just going to abandon the city? It felt so empty and I was thinking, well, why would you want to be here? What has it got to offer? People are drawn to places because of other people. It’s like if you own a restaurant. It doesn’t matter how good the food is if no one is in there. No one will want to come in.”
Six months into a crisis that has turned so many lives upside down, their businesses are in a precarious position. City centres have hollowed out and office working may never be quite the same again.
The residential market is waiting to see which way the tide turns. The evidence so far is mixed and here the flight out of the city has not happened – yet.
This was supposed to be a landmark year for Heatley’s firm, Capital & Centric. It had numerous developments under construction across Manchester, including ambitious plans to turn the red-light district into a whole new neighbourhood, Piccadilly East.
Filmed for a BBC documentary last year, Heatley bounced around his building sites saying things like: “There’s been that much money spent here that it can’t fail now, really.”
But when the documentary finally aired last month, with footfall in Manchester city centre not even up to a third of normal levels, it sounded hubristic, if not delusional.
Yet, Heatley remains upbeat. Yes, he had lost several million pounds because of construction delays, notably on Crusader Mill, a renovation project marketed to owner-occupiers on the gimmick that investors were banned, which is more than a year behind schedule.
But sales were booming, he said, sounding slightly surprised. It was the developers who had scrimped on space, indoor and out, who would be in trouble, he thought – those who had built “big glamorous boxes in the sky”.
Marcus Johns lives in an old red-brick apartment block overshadowed by shiny glass high-rises – a collection of four hulking skyscrapers marketed as Deansgate Square.
During lockdown he was surprised to be able to hear applause from the 44-storey West Tower during the Thursday night Clap for Carers: though unable to open a conventional window, residents could open air vents to sound their appreciation for the NHS.
Johns, 25, is a Labour councillor for the local Deansgate ward. He is also a researcher at the IPPR North thinktank, which recently vacated its city centre office, leaving all staff working from home.
Balconies are overrated, he thinks. He and his boyfriend have one they never sit on. “Ultimately, there are a limited number of days in Manchester when you could sit out there anyway. I prefer sitting in front of our big window watching the rain,” he said. He didn’t think the allure of city centre living would go away
Twist was surprised how many new buyers were untroubled by the lack of outdoor space. Nearly half of the new flats her firm sold in a bumper July and August – with sales and instructions up 150% on the same period in 2019 – had no balconies.
Though most buyers were owner-occupiers, overseas investors were back, particularly from Hong Kong, she said. The only market yet to return was the Chinese students, whose parents would pay £200-plus a week for a serviced apartment.
Louise Wyman, Manchester city council’s new head of growth, insisted Covid had changed little in terms of residential development. No developers had halted or significantly downsized their projects, she said.
Demand for rental property in the city still outstrips supply by five to one, according to Zoopla. The city-centre population is about 72,000, up from 10,000 in 2001, and Wyman expects it to rise to 100,000 by 2025.
Renters are perhaps more discerning now. In July, Josh Sanderson, a 28-year-old trainee barrister, moved into West Tower with his boyfriend, Matt Brown, a nurse. They pay £1,400 a month for a two-bedroom flat, which includes super-fast broadband, access to a communal roof terrace on a neighbouring block, plus gym and swimming pool and free coffee in reception.
Sanderson moved from No 1 Deansgate, a sloping steel-and-glass-walled monolith, which, when it opened in 2002, was the ultimate in luxury city living.
It had not aged well, suggested Sanderson: “There’s not much there – the communal space is basically empty, there isn’t really the community feeling you get here.”
Manchester’s first-generation skyscrapers will need to up their game to compete with the more Instagram-friendly 2020 successors, it seems.
Deansgate Square and No 1 Deansgate were designed by Ian Simpson, who last year boasted that Manchester was going to be a “mini Manhattan”. Office construction volumes doubled in 2018 and 2019, according to analysts at Deloitte, and at one point in 2018 Manchester council’s chief executive, Joanne Roney, said there were more cranes on Manchester’s skyline than that of any other city in Europe. Some of the new developments were from Bruntwood, one of the biggest commercial property developers in the north, with £1.4bn of projects in the pipeline.
Chris Oglesby, Bruntwood’s chief executive, has had many sleepless nights during lockdown, wondering what would happen to the business his father, Mike, founded in 1970 after buying up an old gas works near Bolton.
Many commentators had assumed the home working revolution, coupled with the recession, would already have hit the finances of Bruntwood and their like.
But since March, just 22 tenants had given notice out of a customer base of 3,000. “Normally we would have expected about 75 to go in that period,” he said, talking in the plant-filled boardroom of Bruntwood’s headquarters in Union House, on Manchester’s Albert Square.
Construction continues on three major Bruntwood developments in central Manchester and a further seven remain in the pipeline across the country. In the short to medium term he thought offices would operate at 65-70% maximum capacity – although Johnson telling the nation this week to again work from home if possible means in practice occupancy rates will be much lower for a while. When workers were in, they would require more space, thought Oglesby: not just to keep a safe distance, but also because the emphasis would be on “sharing ideas and collaborating, rather than just sitting at a desk”.
Testing was part of the solution, he thought. Bruntwood was investigating a regular Covid testing scheme for its 1,200 employees, which would cost the firm about £10 a test – a service it would offer to tenants too.
But cities were not just about flats and offices, said Stephen O’Malley, the founding director of Civic Engineers, a company based in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. He believes the city’s leaders have focused on buildings at the expense of green space and the public realm, which will be essential in retaining and attracting urban residents. Though the council recently announced plans to build its first park in 100 years, near Heatley’s Piccadilly East, O’Malley wants to see more trees, more places to sit and better cycle lanes.
He is a proponent of the idea of creating a “20 -minute city”, where everyone lives within 20 minutes of their workplace and everything else they want for a good life. Ultimately, he thinks Manchester has a better chance of weathering the storm than other cities, such as Leeds and Glasgow, where Civic Engineers also has offices. “There’s just something about Manchester that has momentum with regard to its culture, its desirability, its swagger,” he said.
In five years Bruntwood would be a bigger company, predicted Oglesby. His bigger fear was for what he called the “ecosystem of the city” – the theatres, the independent cafes and restaurants that make Manchester a fun place to live and do business.
His fears are well-founded: OBI Property’s Returning To Manchester survey this month, conducted before the uptick in Covid cases and the 10pm curfew announcement, found that just 38% of those employees back at their desks were going to coffee shops and only 17% to bars, with health risks being cited as the major deterrent to using city-centre amenities.
“People keep talking about Pret, which is a very good operator in terms of a multiple, but those companies will have strong enough balance sheets to survive for quite some time,” said Oglesby. “It is those smaller independent businesses, which have created the character of the place, they are the ones I have the biggest concern about. The last thing you want to revert to is the cookie-cutter cities and towns that had become less attractive and lost out to online.”
• This article was amended on 24 September 2020 to remove an incorrect reference to the IPPR North thinktank hoping to negotiate “a better deal” as the reason it had vacated its offices.