I Spy? Manchester's Top Espionage Properties
Spies are everywhere — as the audacious assasination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal last month showed. And spies, like everyone else, need property.
London's espionage infrastructure has been well mapped — from the monumental MI5 HQ at Thames House to the former Watchers' depot in Streatham (the lair of Toby Esterhase in the Smiley novels of John Le Carré).
What of Manchester's spy property, foreign and domestic? The simple answer is nobody really knows — despite the work of sites like Secret Bases — and if Bisnow really knew where the U.K. spies were, it would keep it secret. However, public sources suggest a handful of top locations. Just do not tell anyone.
Iris Scanners on King Street
MI5 announced in 2005 that it was to set up a Manchester operation. Discretion forbids Bisnow to say which building on King Street, Manchester, is equipped with iris scanners and a discrete but very real security presence. When confronted with the iris scanner on his way to an interview this reporter declined — and asked the landlord why it was there. The discomfort this question produced was palpable.
Not proof that MI5 have an office upstairs but a city centre base is possible unless you believe the theory — propogated on one specialist website — that their main depot is at Pilsworth, Bury. If this theory is right, then easier motorway access obviously appeals to spooks, as much as to any other office occupier.
Special Branch have long been the public legally sanctioned face of MI5, the domestic security service — and if you want to find Special Branch in Manchester the best place to start is the Greater Manchester Police HQ at Central Park, Newton Heath. The 249K SF building was the result of a pre-let deal signed with Ask Developments in 2009.
Where To Look For Watchers
Watchers — or Mobile Surveilliance Officers — work in teams to follow suspected persons. Several dozen ordinary people of different shapes, sizes, ages and descriptions might be involved, rotating the team regularly to avoid the suspect spotting familiar faces. So a watcher base has to be the kind of place that hundreds of assorted people can use, without attracting attention.
The Watcher base in London was — allegedly — once located in a fake Department of Social Security office at Euston Tower. The busy location near a station, and multiple occupancy of a huge building, helped make the vast inflows and outflows of watchers inconspicuous. So where better in Manchester than the anonymous offices above Piccadilly Bus Station, where any number of people could come and go without batting an eye? City Tower, which long had a large government occupancy, was sold by Bruntwood to Schroders in 20014 for £132M.
Perhaps not spies, but in similar territory, the Soapworks is understood to be the home of the U.K.'s Cyber Security Operations Centre, according to the Secret Bases website. The Home Office, who took 54K at the Salford building, accidentally outed the office's function in a job advertisement.
There may be overseas spies active in Manchester, too. So where to look? A busy, anonymous, multiply occupied location has plenty of appeal to the espionage occupier - and Peter House, Oxford Street is by coincidence the home of the Russian Visa Application Service. The bureau is not a consulate — but it does official work on behalf of the Russian Embassy in London.
... And Chinese?
Manchester has a large Chinatown, reputedly the second largest in the U.K. and the third largest in Europe. Data from 2017 shows that just more than 1% of the city's population was born in China — whilst the University of Manchester is the U.K's second most popular destination for Chinese students, with around 3,200 registered. That makes the Chinese Consulate General in Manchester — the largest diplomatic mission in the city — particularly significant. Located in Victoria Park in the midst of student halls of residence, and surrounded by formidable security, the consulate is intensely private.