How Manchester was gifted to corporate landlords

Isaac Rose introduces some of the ideas in his new book, The Rentier City: Manchester and the Making of the Neoliberal Metropolis, published today by Repeater.


In 1849 the journalist Angus Reach, a writer for the London-based Morning Chronicle, acquired a reputation for his lively dispatches from Manchester. He wasn’t unusual in this regard. Indeed, Reach can be seen as coming at the tail end of a great wave of public interest in the northern metropolis, which at that point had become one of the great fascinations of the day. This city, the ‘shock city’, as liberal historian Asa Briggs would later memorably describe it, was considered to be the marvel of the nascent industrial era.

In one of his memorable passages, Reach described the journey taken by the traveller heading north by rail towards Manchester. “The first sign that you were drawing close to the city was first the changing colour of the sky — leaden grey, stained by the smoke of a thousand chimneys. Then, small industrial villages began to appear, “town after town — the outlying satellites of the great cotton metropolis. They have all similar features” he wrote, “they are all little Manchesters.”

The book cover for The Rentier City

Today Britain is no longer an industrial country. Rather, after forty years of neoliberalism, it is the paradigmatic case of rentier capitalism. In his work of this title, Brett Christophers meticulously demonstrates how rentiers — those who command an income or rent from the control of a scarce asset — have extended their influence through all sectors of our economy, from land and housing to tech platforms, infrastructure and public contracts. Of these, land and housing, as well as being the forms of rentierism that have been with us the longest time, are also the forms we find most familiar.

The Rentier City suggests that if Manchester in the nineteenth century was considered paradigmatic of industrial capitalist urbanisation, then today we can look to the city again for clues to understand how our cities are being reshaped in the era of rentier capitalism. Here, it places particular analytical attention on the growth in build-to-rent — the building of large blocks of flats not to be sold to individual owner occupiers, but to be held in perpetuity as rental properties by a single corporate landlord.

Since the crash, this has been the dominant form of development in the city and is the archetype of its new geographies of rentierism. The corollary of this is both a greater presence of institutional capital within the city’s property landscape (86% of Manchester’s built-to-rent developments are funded this way) but also a greater integration with international flows of capital, with two thirds of the capital coming from overseas. The new skyline, signifying this build-to-rent boom over the last decade, is visible to any traveller long before they arrive in the city.

The contents of the book

The book aims to do three key things. First, it synthesises the critique of Manchester’s contemporary property boom that has been advanced over the past five years by the housing justice movement. Academic analysis that tracks the data which shows an increasing presence of institutional capital within the city’s property market is brought together with a ground-level perspective borne out of my own experiences as an organiser with the tenants union.

Together, they give rise to a rebuke to the boosterist narrative that celebrates the ‘Manchester miracle’ — the ‘capital of regeneration’ — replacing it with something far more complex and ambiguous. ‘Investment’ is reframed as something done to expand the powers of rentier extraction; the interaction between land and ‘walls of capital’ leads to rent rises, gentrification and, in the medium term, social cleansing.

Second, it traces the trajectory of the last forty years, paying attention to its contingent and path-dependent nature. The defeat of the new urban left, the urban agenda of the new right (enterprise zones, right-to-buy, austerity) as well as the deception and betrayal by New Labour of its urban electorates through its estate demolition programmes emerge as critical moments along the way. This story is one eschewed by commentators on the city, usually favouring an almost magical narrative that draws a straight line from the Haçienda to the towers of today. But without it, the present is impossible to understand.

Finally, the fact that all this has taken place in Manchester, a city of world-historic importance in the development of capitalist modernity, has allowed for the book to take a longer view and consider the sweep of the city’s development from the 18th century to now. Through this wider historical lens, patterns emerge in the transitions in capitalism over the last 200 years, and Britain’s shift from an industrial to a rentier economy. The apocalypse of deindustrialisation killed the industrial city; this crisis is the essential background to the choices taken in the late 1980s by city leaders.

The work is particularly attentive to the shifting forces that have driven the construction of the city’s built environment across the centuries. Here the story is one of the rise, fall and resurrection of the rentier. In the industrial city speculators built both the slums and the suburbs, the homes for the workers and the bourgeoisie. A reform movement from the late19th century onwards provided the impetus for improving the living conditions of the working classes, and out of this came reconditioning, slum clearance and ultimately council housing. Private interests were gradually replaced by rational public planning by the local state.

The neoliberal era represented the undoing of this settlement, through housing and land privatisations, the proliferation of public-private partnership and the stoking of a property-led regeneration model using the full support of the state, via public subsidy such as the £400m Housing Investment Fund; the relaxing of demands on developers to pay Section 106 or build affordable housing; the gifting of public land. In amidst all this, misery and squalor abound as the working class and urban poor strive to get by, paying more and more on rent, too many of them suffering in damp-riddled homes. The pathologies of the Victorian city have been resurrected and are now to be seen all around us.

Readers of the book will encounter these three themes in roughly reverse order, as the narrative moves from the 18th century through to the present moment. These long waves play out across the decades in the same city, the same neighbourhoods. Class forces grapple with these movements of historical change. Resistance and struggle is a constant throughout this story — as indeed is the experience of ‘clearance’ and displacement for the urban working class.

All little Manchesters?

Why does this book matter? The obvious need to address the historiography of post-industrial Manchester was an impetus for writing it, but this is only of limited concern. Beyond this, I believe work should have broader resonances. A closer, critical look at Manchester is necessary because the city is frequently held up as a success story, a path for others to emulate and follow. This urgency of understanding the trajectory of this city is all the greater for the fact that we are likely on the cusp of a Labour government.

Just as Manchester prefigured the ‘third way’ avant la lettre in the late1980s with the pivot of its once-left municipal leadership towards urban entrepreneurialism, public-private partnership and market-led regeneration; so today we can look in the construction of the rentiers’ paradise for clues for how a Starmer-Reeves administration would govern at the national level; and how their agenda will play out on the urban scale.

Manchester provides us a good place to see a prefiguration of the kind of cities that we might expect a Labour government to create. Its results are clear: displacement of the working class from the inner city, the construction of a parallel ‘luxified’ new town in the city centre, and the empowerment of a class of rent-racketeering corporate landlords who enforce a high rent burden on the city and its peoples, extracting wealth out and into the portfolios of investors. Gentrification is revealed as the product not of middle class consumption habits, but of hard political economy, driven through the planning system through relentless anti-democratic manoeuvrings.

Nationally it seems there has been a near-total capture of Labour’s urban, planning and housing policy by the developer lobby. The extent of the ‘housing crisis’ serves only to bolster the discourse that argues for a massive extension of the power of property developers. Aggressive ‘YIMBYs’ — outriders which call for a ripping up of planning regulations, the pledge from the leadership to be on the side of the ‘builders not the blockers’, scattered calls to ‘densify’ (read: privatise) inner city council estates, and the build-to-rent model itself are now posed as panacea. All these suggest that Labour in power would intensify the grip of rentiers in our cities across the country, not weaken them. Capital has decided upon the solution to the ‘housing crisis’. Labour looks set to become its willing accomplice.

Source >> LabourHub

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Isaac Rose works as an organiser for the Greater Manchester Tenants Union and is author of The Rentier City: Manchester and the Making of the Neoliberal Metropolis.

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