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Why The Eastlands Arena Row Might Be Really, Really Serious

For the first time in decades, Manchester City Council's regeneration strategy is encountering headwinds.

Plans for a 20,000-seat arena at Eastlands inspired serious opposition from the operators (and neighbours) of the existing city centre arena. Even big property names like Nick Leslau are getting involved.

Meanwhile, plans to turn a Piccadily site into a 200K SF-plus workspace development, and replace housebuilding with more workspace at the site of Ancoats Central retail park, are causing friction too.

Ahead of a final decision on the Eastlands regeneration framework next week, Bisnow untangles the mess and identifies what has gone wrong with Manchester's long-successful strategic regeneration frameworks.

Manchester's Etihad Stadium, in the Eastlands regeneration area

Since it was announced in March 2019, the revised Eastlands Regeneration Framework has been trouble. It revised a 2017 document claiming that the economic change in 24 months had been so profound as to make the old document historic. Since then, the complaints about the revised proposals have risen in volume to the extent that Manchester City Council's long-familiar approach to strategic regeneration is coming under pressure.

So What's The Proposal?

The rewritten Eastlands Regeneration Framework, revealed in March and published here, envisaged a 20,000-seat arena next to Manchester City FC's Etihad stadium, on the city centre's eastern fringe.

"The draft would seek to respond to the increasing interest from national and international investors who were evaluating the Etihad Campus as a location for new entertainment and leisure offers," minutes of the City Council Executive's March 2019 meeting recorded.

"International investors and operators were seeing Manchester as one of the few cities in Europe with the ability to successfully host more than one large arena," the report went on to say, adding that it was known that these investors were evaluating locational options and were addressing the detailed business case for such an investment with a view to selecting a site and bringing forward development proposals.

There could also be a cinema and hotel development alongside. American arena investor Oak View has been associated with the project, Manchester Confidential reported.

SMG, which runs the existing 21,000-capacity Manchester Arena, was immediately anxious. It declared the plan could put them out of business with serious consequences for city centre hotels, restaurants and bars. SMG did not pull its punches in a leaflet distributed to residents near the new arena site. The council disputes some of what SMG said and called the campaign "misleading."

A large number of city centre landlords also objected: SMG was joined by MJV, which owns the long leasehold and operates the Manchester Arndale shopping centre; Printworks leisure centre owner DTZ Investors; Aviva Investors (owner and asset manager of the Corn Exchange leisure scheme); hotel operators Crowne Plaza, Inside by Melia and Holiday Inn Express; Hard Rock Café; department store Harvey Nichols; and Manchester Theatres.

Each has different objections, but at the core is the claim Manchester cannot support two arenas, particularly since the supply of large event space is growing anyway with The Factory (6,500 capacity) and the recent proposal from U+I at Mayfield Depot (10,000 capacity). Research by Grant Thornton suggested the objectors may have a point.

U+I has particular reason to worry, because the revised strategy also promises further action on plans for a 500K SF office campus on the site of the Ancoats Central Retail Park, and General Product's 200K SF MXM workspace scheme at Pollard Street, both on the doorstep of their Mayfield office development. Both the Central Retail Park and Pollard Street sites had previously been earmarked for residential.

U+I's Richard Upton, Matthew Weiner and James Heather at the site of the company's new Manchester office at Mayfield.

Why Does This Matter?

Two reasons. First, because Manchester City Council used to pride itself on close relationships with developers and landlords. U+I did not respond to Bisnow's invitation to comment, but rival plans emerging just months after it launched its latest plans for the £1.1B development with up to 800K SF of new office floorspace create unforeseen competition. Others with property interests have made formal objections.

But the second reason why this matters may be more telling. Several property objectors, among them Arndale owner and operator MJV, raised concerns about the way the council uses documents like the Eastlands Regeneration Framework.

"Concerns have also been raised as whether or not the draft framework has supplementary planning document status (or is a non-statutory document to which weight is afforded)," a report to councillors on MJV's objections said. "It is argued that neither approach would be the appropriate mechanism to introduce a major entertainment and leisure facility. MJV is of the view that allocations and land uses should be tested through the proper development plan process."

DTZ Investors made similar complaints about the use of the framework process. "The representation from DTZ is that large-scale proposals of strategic relevance should be considered as part of an independently tested development plan document. This would relate to objectively assessed need and be informed by a sustainability appraisal to meet legal requirements," the report said.

The council's response is that the regeneration framework is a steer, not an instruction.

"The draft Eastlands Regeneration Framework, if approved, would be one of a number of material considerations and it would be for the decision maker to decide the weight to be attributed to it," the council said. "For the avoidance of doubt, if the ERF is approved and a planning application was to be made for land covered by the ERF that was not in conformity with the ERF, this would not necessarily be refused."

However, behind the complaints from city centre landlords is the fact that the ERF is not an independent view based on independent evidence, but a document drawn up by Eastlands Strategic Development Co., a partnership between the council and Manchester City FC's owners, Abu Dhabi United Group.

The report to councillors concedes: "The draft Eastlands Regeneration Framework has not undergone a formal statutory consultation although it has been developed through a series of consultations with key stakeholders."

The list of key stakeholders is not included in the documents presented to councillors.

The Consequences

The report to the council's ruling executive suggests no substantive alterations to the ERF. It goes no further than offering a market assessment of demand as part of any subsequent planning application for a new Eastlands arena.

For 20 years Manchester City Council managed regeneration by, in effect, outsourcing the production of non-statutory regeneration frameworks to landlords and developers. Once agreed by the council, planning applications from those same landlords and developers and the key stakeholders they worked with would be judged against the regeneration framework they had written, providing evidence for approving the application. 

Until now developers and landlords who do not entirely share the council's agenda have muttered in private, but in public have co-operated. But private discontent is now turning very public. If that co-operative approach is breaking down, or seen to deliver unfair advantages, Manchester's long, smooth run of regeneration management could be at end.