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Will Lewis – director of OBI Property – on 20 years of Manchester growth

June 2016 will bring up 20 years since an IRA bomb ripped a chunk out of Manchester city centre one Saturday morning. Although mercifully nobody was killed, the attack sent shockwaves through the city – but it didn’t take long to start to dust itself down.

It’s often said that the bomb was what started it all for Manchester’s emergence in recent years as a newly confident commercial centre, a modern European city – but it’s more accurate really to say that it was one of a number of factors. Manchester City Council were already demonstrating strong civic leadership, and had set out their stall with an ambitious bid for the 2000 Olympic Games – a losing bid, true, but one that taught it enough to secure the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

From that, a new stadium was built in the east of the city, a stadium that would then allow Manchester City to leave decrepit Maine Road and within a few years, attract the investment from Abu Dhabi that has transformed not only that club, but is proving a significant partner for the city in regeneration and housing.

While the new retail and leisure quarter created around the actual bomb site was well delivered, and crucially provided the more spacious premises retailers now demand, what really set the city apart from its competitors from the late 1990s was the scale of its ambition and determination to make big projects happen across the city.

Chief among these has been Spinningfields, which emerged as an inkling in the late 1990s before starting to become the city’s key business centre in the early 2000s. Manchester was fairly unequivocal that Spinningfields was the biggest show in town, and the project gathered critical mass as more and more professional services firms and corporates moved in, providing the foundations for the retail and leisure that followed.

The key point is that this success hasn’t been to the detriment of other areas: its success has also allowed others to thrive. Piccadilly Place, First Street, New York Street and now St Peter’s Square have all done tremendously well. A rising tide has lifted all ships.

If they’re totally honest about it, other cities failed to make a Spinningfields happen amid a long property boom leading up to 2008. Projects of scale got halfway there, but bets were hedged and those behind the big schemes have had to re-evaluate their options. The hope is that in this present upward part of the economic cycle, there’s enough momentum to make projects like Wellington Place in Leeds and the Temple Quarter in Bristol as complete as Spinningfields now is.

Another key strength of Manchester has been more of an emphasis on destination marketing and inward investment than other cities. The city has told its story well. Marketing Manchester and MIDAS have consistently been better than most of their counterparts over the last 20 years, and the inward investment wins and successful bids underline that.

So to sum up, yes the events of June 1996 were important in Manchester’s development, but it’s part of a larger story. It’s not just about the bomb.


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