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The Landlords’ Utopia

Far from the cliches about Manchester ‘doing things differently’, the city’s rapid takeover by luxury property developers is driving out working-class communities and suffocating local culture.

The Manchester model of development has turned the city into a poster child for neoliberal urbanism'. (Credit: Zach Rowlandson/Unsplash)

At Chanel’s recent fashion show in Manchester, a lone protestor angrily noted the contrast between ‘celebrity-spotting’ glitz and a growing homelessness crisis. Interviewed in a TikTok video, she demanded of the council: ‘Get your bleedin’ priorities right’.

The moral case against gentrification seems clear. But for many of us, it’s often difficult to grasp the tangled web of economic and political dynamics that drive it. This makes it hard to dispel the flurry of boosterist clichés pumped out by those who provide a cover story for the creative destruction of a city like Manchester. It doesn’t matter that such boosterism is often risible grifting, blatantly dictated by the interests of the private sector — for instance, Manchester’s new flagship arts venue, the unimaginatively titled ‘Factory International’, has now been renamed ‘Aviva Studios’ after a corporate sponsorship deal with the insurance giant.

What matters is that, as cultural theorist Alan Sinfield once claimed, ‘powerful stories — those useful to powerful groups — tend to drive out others.’ In this spirit, Isaac Rose’s The Rentier City does a superb job of cutting through such nonsense. Manchester and the people who love it have needed a book like this for some time.

So far, only academic work has investigated Manchester’s economic shift towards property development, finance and consumption after the death of a mass industrial presence in the city. What it has shown isn’t pretty. Working-class communities face social cleansing, heritage has been erased or exploited in the pursuit of raw profit, and an investment bubble has caused rents and property prices to soar for Mancunians whose employment situation is often low-waged and precarious. Gentrification concentrates, and ‘peripheral’ areas are left to rot until, vulture-like, developers move in on them one by one.

This often scattered, often inaccessible academic research has been bridged by The Rentier City. Rose brings the story of Manchester’s reinvention bang up to date in a direct, readable style that draws upon scholarship without ever becoming turgid. Central to his way of telling the story is a vivid use of recurring anecdotes, which weave together what might otherwise be a sprawling narrative; in them, the fates of particular Mancunian locations act as a way of conveying bigger histories and illustrating Rose’s case.

One such location is Eastford Square in Collyhurst, featuring a 1969 public sculpture in concrete by post-war modernist artist William Mitchell. This ‘totem’ is now all that remains, surrounded by wasteland after a once socially housed community was displaced and the bulldozers moved in to make way for ‘the largest redevelopment zone in Britain’; one that will consist primarily of unaffordable private homes. As Rose notes: ‘The fate of William Mitchell’s totem and the square around it captures in microcosm something of the great transition that has happened in our cities over the last half century: the vast shift in housing provision from public good to private gain.’

There are many other strengths to this book. To begin with, it powers through 200 years of history, showing that despite the myth of Manchester as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, it has always been a ‘rentier city’ too since its modern inception. Waterpower had resulted in scattered semi-rural centres of activity, like the now suburbanised area of Marple. Steam power, though, allowed for the concentration of industrial activity and people, turning Manchester into ‘the most densely populated place in the world.’

Whether worker or boss, all these people needed somewhere to live. Capitalism did not just operate through factory production; Rose recounts the way that ‘speculative private builders threw up jerry-built housing for the workers’. Their cynical profit-driven cost-cutting resulted in the unspeakably foul, disease-ridden slums of legend. Meanwhile, investors bought up the land surrounding the city in expanding concentric rings, pioneering the development of the middle-class suburb.

The benefits of this historical approach are many. For one, it cuts through another pretty tasteless myth — that the 1996 IRA bombing of the city centre was the best thing that ever happened to Manchester, somehow magically kickstarting its property-led rebirth. In place of this myth, a much longer pattern of the exploitation of land and housing for private gain comes into view, allowing us to make comparisons and draw contrasts.

To help him make this case, Rose draws on the work of one of Manchester’s most famous immigrant sons, Friedrich Engels. He shows how Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) and The Housing Question (1872) offered properly systemic explanations for the poor quality of working-class districts and the periodic forced uprooting of such communities. Engels is only one thinker drawn on here. Others include the Marxist geographer David Harvey and Manchester’s own Doreen Massey.

These theories of capitalist urbanism and resistance to it are brought to life by the gripping history that Rose recounts: from rowdy Victorian pubs (‘the bedrock of working-class associational life’) to the oft-ignored utopian planning visions of mid-twentieth century Manchester. In turn, the theory challenges that other treasured yet threadbare Mancunian myth: ‘We do things differently here.’ Instead, Rose shows that far from being unique, Manchester is an exemplary place through which to understand the global phenomenon of gentrification — ‘a poster child for neoliberal urbanism.’

Speaking of the global, a further strength of The Rentier City is the spotlight it shines on imperialism. After reading this book, few could entertain the comforting notion that a localised ‘northern grit’ has been solely responsible for the city’s phenomenal waves of growth. Through the port of Liverpool came slave-picked cotton, whose processing generated vast profits that were often re-invested in housing and the built environment.

Right up to the present, Manchester has been embedded in an international network of capital and power. As Rose makes clear, the latest phase of this is an explosion of shiny yet shoddy ‘build-to-rent’ properties. Constructed on land sold off cheaply by the council, they are often funded and owned by pools of international finance capital looking for a guaranteed return on investment from Britain’s growing class of private renters. By and large, the wealth skimmed off tends to flow offshore. Ancoats, ‘one of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods’ according to the place-branding website I♥ MCR, is one of the epicentres of such extraction. Unsurprisingly, its development has been dependent on the enforced decanting of a socially housed working-class community: ‘When I pass here, I could cry’, claims former resident Jackie Marston.

The dirty secrets of imperial capital and the gentrification ‘frontier’ leads to another notable feature of The Rentier City. Refreshingly, Rose calmly demolishes the tedious doxa that the 1980s music scene around Factory Records and the Hacienda was the primary force behind Manchester’s revitalisation. Instead, he exposes another less talked-about network of movers and shakers: chummy cliques of local businessmen and politicians who helped birth an overwhelmingly male-led ‘Manchester model’ of urban entrepreneurialism. By doing so, Rose brings into relief the crisis of democracy that frequently accompanies gentrification — the way that decisions about the use of space are wrenched out of the collective control of electors, becoming subject to the whims of investors.

All this might paint a pretty bleak picture. Yet The Rentier City is by no means a hopeless book. The author’s involvement in tenants’ organising is key to this. Throughout, Rose weaves in the voices of those who are so often ignored and connects his ‘big picture’ analysis to two centuries of ground-level struggles against rentier capitalism. His persistent tracing of what he calls ‘the two souls of Manchester’ — cosmopolitan working-class based radicalism and bourgeois free market liberalism — splits asunder one last pillar of Manc bullshit: that our shared local identity makes us part of one big cosy family. This myth crops up relentlessly, from HSBC adverts to local content marketing.

Only through such honesty about two fundamentally opposed sets of class interests can we see that there are also two possible visions for Manchester: the one we’re currently stuck with, or what Rose poetically evokes as follows: ‘True public housing — affordable to all at the point of need – must be our central goal; our wider vision an old one: a world so beautiful and unobtrusive that all people can become human.’