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Whitehall Of The North: How The Deal Of The Decade Got So Boring

It was supposed to be the deal of the decade — maybe even the deal of the century. Today supposedly game-changing plans to bring a Whitehall of the North to Manchester are failing to thrill. A big deal is what they are not.

U+I's James Heather at the Mayfield site

Back in 2009 the potential 1M SF consolidation of Manchester's government offices was at first hailed by Labour ministers as an opportunity that could transform parts of the city centre. It has turned into something more modest following pre-Christmas reports that the first phase has been scaled down from 350K SF to just 175K SF. English Cities Fund’s New Bailey development is reported to have won the cut-down requirement.

So what of the remaining 600K SF second phase of the Government Property Unit’s plans to consolidate its Manchester offices? Whilst the process has gone smoothly — and won plaudits — in Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool, in Manchester it feels different.

U+I Development Director James Heather ought to be among those most excited by the prospect. But he is not.

The £850M Mayfield development, over which U+I presides, was identified as far back as 2009 as the likely site for the Whitehall of the North.

U+I was chosen in 2016 as preferred developer of the 24-acre Mayfield site by the landlord consortium including LCR (London & Continental Railways) and Manchester City Council ahead of bids which also included Urban & Civic and a consortium formed by Carillion, Ask and Patrizia.


The derelict Mayfield station site, Fairfield Street, soon to be revived by U+I

“The GPU requirement is one of those things in flux, and we expect the requirement to continue to change,” Heather said. “We’ve been very happy to engage with them, like every other developer in Manchester, but we can’t sit there and wait for them. We’ve got to get on with it at Mayfield and do our own thing because we’ve no idea what their timetable would be and how it would fit with ours. For now, we’re in conversations with the GPU like everyone else.”

Rather than pin his hopes on the GPU, or on the also-tantalising prospect of being the largest available site next to Manchester’s proposed HS2 station, Heather is close to completing a redraft of Mayfield’s strategic regeneration framework ready for approval by the city council later this summer. This will be Mayfield’s third: previous versions were approved in 2011 and 2013.

The new framework will focus on a denser development, and on retaining the historic London Road railway station site which has proved both surprisingly durable, surprisingly popular as a venue for pop-up events, and, Heather said, surprisingly easy to keep when earlier plans envisaged its demolition.

“The big change will be keeping the old depot,” Heather said. “The building is an asset. We shouldn’t be removing characterful buildings that have got soul. So often in large mixed-use developments like this you are trying to create a place, but end up with a false sense of place. We should build on what’s already there. We don’t want to end up with something that feels plastic.”


The new Mayfield framework envisages about 1M SF of office floorspace along with up to 1,400 residential units including a 30-40 storey tower, about two thirds of which will be build to rent. “We’ve not yet had any discussions with potential partners on the residential element,” Heather said.

For those watching the GPU requirement in Manchester, the experience is beginning to seem like a let-down. “I always thought this would be larger,” OBI Property Head of Transactions and Management Richard Lace said, not concealing his disappointment.

Certainly, agents and developers are not holding their breath. With the 600K SF second phase not expected to reach maturity until 2022 or 2023, they would be silly to wait.

“This major requirement may not land until after the next general election, and whilst it will still make sense at that time to future-proof government office occupancy in Manchester, who knows what wider issues will come into play?” GVA Regional Senior Director Chris Cheap said. “Clearly finance will be at the centre of this relocation. Whenever it comes, something on this scale will cost, so obviously the government will want to be careful.”

“Every developer in the city is looking seriously at the second phase of the GPU requirement, but there are many factors that could dramatically change the requirement, and meantime developers have got to get on with their job,” Cheap said.

That means that with the 2022-23 date in mind more developers might follow U+I’s example at Mayfield and press on with their own plans regardless.

This could make the already difficult search for a Manchester government office even harder.

A Cabinet office spokesperson, responding on behalf of the Government Property Unit, said: “We do not comment on commercial negotiations.”

JLL, who are advising the GPU in Manchester, also declined to comment.