Dicing With Death: Can Manchester's Skyscraper Climbers Be Stopped?
MANCHESTER, UK — On or around 25 April a lad who calls himself TheLittleNuisance, along with a male friend who kept his face covered and a young woman, decided to climb to the top of Europa Capital’s recently completed 44-storey rented residential block at 100 Greengate in Salford, Manchester.
Watch the video for yourself, but they do not appear to force entry. They ride the lift to floor 41, then walk up the final flight of stairs to find the door to the roof (pause for effect) unlocked. They walk around a bit, excitedly establishing their territory, and seem to know what they are looking for.
Then TheLittleNuisance leans out and attaches three climbers' clips to a piece of overhanging gantry. He then swings off the 44th floor, holding onto the third clip with just three fingers. He hangs there for a while, then unhurriedly hauls himself back in.
Thrill-seeking climbers are targetting skyscrapers and tower cranes in Manchester, and other cities around the world in a growing social media trend.
But can a piece of legal paperwork really win out against the climbers' addiction to social media hits? And can they stop it before somebody gets killed?
So easy and successful was the visit, the team returned to 100 Greengate the following day for another attempt, and this time The LittleNuisance swings around happily in front of a dizzying panorama of Salford and central Manchester before attempting a full pullup for the cameras and those viewing from the ground.
Potentially deadly, of course. TheLittleNuisance well understands the risks and adds a harsh warning to his videos and YouTube pages.
Watch to the end of the six-minute clip and you discover it doesn’t all go well. But don’t worry, he doesn’t fall. The trio hear police sirens, guess they have been spotted, and run. A security guard sees them leave the tower but, honestly, he doesn’t stand a chance and he knows it. They skip away into the Manchester evening gloom laughing and bantering. At no point do they appear to find their entrance to the building and its roof limited or controlled.
A Manchester Problem
Manchester is the home city of TheLittleNuisance, and the location of many of his exploits, including climbing Manchester chimney towers, sliding down the Arndale Centre’s exterior escalator and surfing Manchester buses. He is in his late teens and his real name is Adam Lockwood, the Manchester Evening News reported.
Whilst he has been responsible for some of the more eye-catching Manchester exploits, like his not-for-the-faint-hearted trip up the 28-storey Axis tower’s crane, he is not alone. You can view other Manchester climbers here and here.
Manchester is not the only city with an urbex or free climbing problem. On 9 July, London's 1,061 feet high Shard skyscraper was climbed by a 19-year-old from Oxford. He clambered up the outside to the 95th floor and described the experience as "godlike." Admiring profiles subsequently appeared in the Financial Times and The Guardian.
And of course there are tower-climbers in New York, not least Justin Casquejo who has been making headlines since he climbed One World Trade Center in 2014. The 20-year-old was recently filmed hanging from a crane on an Upper West Side building site.
For Manchester’s landlords, contractors and developers in particular, urbex is now a serious problem. The city’s constellation of tower cranes — numbering 78 it is the highest concentration outside London and one of the highest in the world — attracts thrill-seekers with cameras eager for a YouTubable or Instagrammable image. The property industry has come together under Manchester City Centre’s management business CityCo to tackle the problem. For some it has been traumatic.
“The people who own and run these buildings can’t watch the videos. I’ve seen them with tears in their eyes, really worried, they’ve got children the same age,” Manchester CityCo Partnership Director Alexandra King told Bisnow, hitting out at those brands who help fund some urban explorers and the advertising revenue their clips and social media feeds generate.
“We started to get calls from landlords and developers, and we were concerned for the impact on our members. We started to monitor the problem and many of them were surprised what was happening on top of their buildings. They wanted to know what to do, so we worked with the police and city council on finding a partnership solution,” she said.
Urbex started out as a hobby without much consequence. No harm was done, it went on in private property, it wasn’t a police matter.
But when the videos turn into an ABC of getting into a building without permission, and when the climbers themselves might be hurt or killed, or hurt or kill someone else on their way down, then it becomes a social problem, King said.
"When you see someone on the roof and you don’t know what they are doing, could they be a terrorist because we do know about terrorism in Manchester … you worry. Our members want to mitigate the risk because it's such a bloody waste of everyone’s time.”
The answer was High Court injunctions.
Injunctions vs. Social Media
“The urban explorers, and the rooftoppers, and the thrill-seekers, they all realised the law was not well equipped to deal with this,” Eversheds Sutherland Manchester-based partner Stuart Wortley told Bisnow.
“There might be criminal law issues if they cause damage, but they are careful not to cause damage," he said. "And trespass is a civil matter, not criminal. They aren’t caught by the laws that make trespass a criminal matter if you intend to intimidate or disrupt, because they do not intend to intimate or disrupt. And you can’t always say they are a public nuisance, which might be another route. Obviously if someone standing on top of a tower means the police feel they have to close a road, that would be a public nuisance, but what if a road does not need to be closed?”
The solution was to seek a High Court injunction preventing anyone who does not have permission from entering the site. Breaking the injunction becomes a contempt of court which is a criminal matter. Fines or imprisonment could follow.
Wortley said this approach has been tried between 30 and 40 times in the last two years, predominantly in Manchester and London.
“You have to persuade the judge there is a genuine interference with the rights of the property owner to control entry and use of their site. Essentially, that trespass is taking place. The injunction is then against people who trespass, not any named individuals,” he said.
So far no application has been turned down by the High Court. Manchester injunctions include Spinningfields, City Tower, the two football stadiums and the 166K SF 100 Embankment office development at Salford immediately next to the 44-storey tower climbed by TheLittleNuisance. The nine-storey office building is being delivered by Ask Real Estate and the Richardson family in a joint venture with a Tristan Capital Partners’ Fund and Salford City Council.
Wortley said injunctions are effective.
“Obviously there are exceptions, but that tends to be ignorance about what an injunction means and the seriousness of contempt of court," he said.
Recent cases include one group of urban explorers threatened with custodial sentences if they repeat the offence.
However, an injunction still requires landlords to catch urban explorers, and to amass evidence of the contempt. And will the courts continue to grant broad injunctions when, if the 100 Greengate video is any guide, landlords might first work on how to improve the way they control access to their sites? Shouldn’t property security be the first step, not recourse to wide catch-all powers through the courts?
CityCo’s Alexandra King agreed up to a point. “Yes, buildings need to be secured, and we offer guidance," King said.
"We ask people to be welcoming, but questioning, and realise that just because someone comes through the door with a hi-vis jacket and an Amazon parcel under their arm doesn’t mean they have a right to come in. But we also have examples of people who work in these buildings who have come back as urban explorers. Yes, you need robust security but sometimes landlords literally don’t know what to do, so they opt for an injunction."
For now the injunction route appears to be working. TheLittleNuisance is now operating away from Manchester, with Paris the centre of his activity. Bisnow invited him to talk, but has as yet received no response.
In other jurisdictions in the United States and Europe other remedies have been tried, not least police action as New York's Justin Casquejo found out. But in the UK, police action is scarce: Shard climber George King was "spoken to" by police officers, but no further action was taken. Injunctions, first trialled in 2012 in an effort to stop French spiderman Alain Robert from climbing the Shard, seem the only option.
Landlords issue weary, slightly hopeless-sounding statements, because they know that in England & Wales their options are limited.
"Fortunately no-one was hurt by this dangerous activity and we are in dialogue about this matter with the Metropolitan Police and the other relevant authorities," a statement from Shard owner Real Estate Management said after the George King climb, the Telegraph reported. "We will always push for a prosecution if it is clear that any law has been broken to maintain the ongoing safety of the area," they said. But nobody believes prosecution is likely.
Young men have always mixed limitless self-confidence with a sense of immortality: their energy and recklessness are two of the things that make the world go round. But inevitably the climbers’ mix of deadly narcissism and addictive attention-seeking is attracting growing online audiences. There have already been fatalities. One day soon someone will get killed on camera and that will earn the most hits of all.
Whilst for Manchester landlords, developers and contractors the climbing craze is a fear-inducing nuisance, for everyone else it raises some troubling questions about whether the unhinged mix of exhibitionism and voyeurism that social media has (in so many ways) unleashed is really what we want.