Climax City

Random writing on cities


4 Recessions Part 2: The 1980s: Manchester and Thatcher’s Britan

I arrived in Manchester for the autumn university term of 1979. The previous winter had been the Winter of Discontent and I had been a month too young to vote in the May election that had seen the Thatcher Government come to power. The recession officially lasted only for my first autumn and spring in Manchester, but its effects were to be felt in Manchester for much of the following decade. That first winter inflation peaked at 22% and the new Government introduced monetarist policies to bring this under control. This involved bringing the unions to heel, slashing public spending and ‘improving’ industrial productivity by closing down inefficient industries. All of this succeeded, at least as far as inflation was concerned, which, by 1983, had fallen to 4%. The cost was however paid in deep cuts to the public sector, mass unemployment and the decimation of manufacturing industry. By the time I was doing my finals unemployment had risen to 12.5%, three times it peak in the 1970s recession and a level not seen since the Great Depression.

These changes disproportionately affected the industrial north. Manchester had been in steep industrial decline since the 1950s and was particularly hard hit. The city lost 207,000 manufacturing jobs between 1972 and 1984 and its unemployment rate rose to 20%. The city was also haemorrhaging people with the population of the council area (only part of the conurbation) falling from just over 700,000 after the war to around 430,000 by the end of the 1980s. As in London eight years earlier, there were fears that the city would collapse. The difference in Manchester was that this collapse did actually happen ­– it is just that Manuunians refused to accept it. One of the conceptual problems of regeneration policy is getting people to understand what a place was like before it was regenerated.

Most people find it impossible to conceive how far Manchester, and indeed most northern cities had fallen by the early 1980s. The best way I can illustrate it is to describe a walk we took one Sunday afternoon when I was a student. We started from the Town Hall and walked out through the derelict Central Station, to Castlefield with is scrap yards and derelict mills, on through Pomona docks and Salford Quays as far out as Barton Bridge. From the heart of the city to its edge, a distance of some 6 miles, we walked through uninterrupted dereliction. We could have done the same along the Irk Valley to the North or the River Medlock to the east. Even in the city centre there were large areas of dereliction, including the two sites facing the town hall on Albert Square.

Hélène on that walk through Castlefield in the early 80s and from the same spot last year  

IMG_2496 Castlefield scrap yard

My first job in Manchester Council in the mid 1980s was to work with the Derelict Land Grant team who spent all of their time demolishing factories and covering the sites with grass and occasional trees. The idea that these sites would ever be developed was inconceivable, the productive heart of the city was being tidied away and grassed over. The bits of the inner city that were neither derelict nor reclaimed green spaces, were council estates (at the time over half the city’s residents were in council housing). The city centre was ringed by some of the ‘boldest’ experiments in social housing from Turkey Lane in the north to Fort Ardwick in the east, Pendleton in Salford (the only one still standing, if not for long) and, of course, Hulme. The Hulme estate on the southern edge of the city centre was a phenomena. The redevelopment of the 130,000 strong community of Hulme had been underway since the 1930s. The last and most iconic scheme was the Crescents completed as late as 1971 and named, without any sense of irony, after the architects Charles Barry, John Nash, William Kent and Robert Adam (A small block in the centre was named after Hawksmore).

The Crescents soon after completion – the grid of the demolished terraces can still be seen to the right

The Crescents, c 1966

The redeveloped Hulme was perhaps the most complete vision of a modernist city ever realised in England. The neighbourhood included six estates, all but one of which were concrete deck access blocks of 6-9 storeys interspersed with 13 tower blocks. By 1984 when I lived there, 59% of Hulme’s adult male population and 68% of its young people were unemployed. All the families had been moved out after the tragic death of a child in 1976 and it had become home to every waif and stray, student and drug dealer in the city.  The redevelopment of Hulme swept away Stretford Road, one of the busiest shopping streets in the city. It was replaced with the Clopton Walk precinct that struggled to sustain a newsagent and an off licence behind vandalite and graffiti. Just opposite this embattled precinct stood a brick box without windows that had been built as the Public Service Vehicles Social Club, for the city’s bus drivers. In 1978 a local television reporter called Tony Wilson took a lease on the place and opened it as a live venue that he called the ‘Factory’, partly as a homage the city’s industrial past and partly as a reference to Andy Wahol. The birth of the Factory was to be the first tentative step in Manchester’s renaissance.


The original Factory in Hulme photographed by Kevin Cummins and the Hacienda less than ten years later

Within a few years The Factory spawned Factory Records, Manchester’s own idiosyncratic record label that signed Joy Division, which then, after Ian Curtis’s death, became New Order. In 1983 Wilson opened a much larger club which he called the Hacienda, in a warehouse on Whitworth Street on the edge of the city centre. With an interior designed by Ben Kelly the club became the centre of the Manchester scene (so much so that it was recreated for the V&A Museum’s exhibition of the best of British Design). By 1988 the club had become the focus of the Acid House movement had become the epicentre of ‘Madchester’s’ Summer of Love. In the ten short year after  Anthony H. Wilson (as he later liked to be called) signed the lease on the Factory, Manchester became the centre of the music world. What is much more important, it became cool. It became a place with cultural significance and with an international profile for more than just football.

I remember at the time a friend of ours spent a few days in hospital in San Francisco at the time. When his fellow patients found out he was from Manchester he was treated a minor celebrity. To my shame I never went to the original Factory (being entirely unaware of its cultural significance in my first year at Uni). I later made the perilous journey from Oxford Road across the glass-strewn footbridge over Princess Parkway to its subsequent incarnations as the Russell Club and then the PSV Club. By 1983 I had moved into a flat in Hulme with my then partner and now wife Hélène, and we found that the dark forbidding area was no less scary as residents. It did however have its consolations and throughout the 1980s it would be the powerhouse of Manchester’s creative community.

The Punx Picnic in Hulme sometime in the mid 80s

UK - Manchester - Hulme - Punks PicnicThe Hulme flats were large, having been built for families, and yet were let to, or squatted by, students and young people. A study of the area undertaken in the late 1980s found that a third of the population had university degrees, equivalent to the city’s leafiest suburb, while another third had no qualifications at all. But it wasn’t a divided area – qualified and unqualified, most people were unemployed, looked the same, drank in the same pubs and ran the gauntlet of the same muggers and drug dealers. This was Manchester’s version of Copenhagen’s Christiania or Berlin’s Kreuzberg, a place on the edge, barely tolerated by the authorities, full of ‘crusties’, anarchists and new age travellers (who overwintered their convoy in Hulme). Yet it was also full of musicians and writers, artists and actors. The big flats provided space for studios and rehearsal rooms, some were turned into recording studios, others into cafes and ‘Blues’ clubs. People published magazines out of apartments, ran design companies and even ran a green produce home delivery company.

In short the conditions in Hulme, extreme as they may have been, created just the right growing conditions for Manchester’s creative economy, the same economy that has pulled the city back from the brink of collapse. In her Book the Economy of Cities Jane Jacobs has a chapter entitled ‘Birmingham Good, Manchester Bad’. Writing in the 1970s she makes the point that Manchester with its tradition of large industrial workforces was singularly ill-equipped for the economy of the late 20th century. Manchester’s economy had always been based on large mills employing thousands of people in relatively unskilled occupations. This created ideal conditions for the growth of working class politics like the Chartists and indeed for music and sub-cultural expression as Dave Haslam has documented in his history of the city’s music scene. However it was not ideally suited to entrepreneurship, innovation and flexibility unlike Birmingham, which was known as the ‘city of a thousand trades’. The lock manufacturers, gun makers and jewellers of Birmingham were based on production chains of small companies each concentrating on one part of the process. Thus Birmingham had the ideal conditions to supply the component chains needed by the car industry – the big economic story at the time that Jacob’s was writing. However today’s economy is based on intellectual capital, creativity and culture. Ironically the working class culture of Manchester, fertilised with the products of its universities, and cultured through the dark days of the 1980s recession created a city much better placed to compete in the economy of the early 21st century.

It is not that far fetched to draw a line between the informal creative economy of Hulme and the decision in 2005 of the BBC to move four departments to Manchester. The recession and collapse of Manchester in the 1980s contained the seeds of the city’s recovery just as will happen in Detroit in the coming years. This is the resilience of urban economies, they go through cycles of growth and decay but it is during the latter that conditions are most propitious for innovation and creativity.