Explosive urbanism: fifteen years after 15/6

by Kevin Ward.

Manchester City Centre IRA Bomb

Image: Greater Manchester Police


It is a sunny Saturday morning in the centre of Manchester. I have just arrived into the city and I am heading from the bus station in Piccadilly Gardens to the train station. It is a ten minute walk. England are due to play football against Scotland at 3pm at Wembley, as part of Euro96. I have a ticket for the game against the Netherlands on the Tuesday. There are helicopters overhead. Why, I wonder. This normally only happens late at night when the police take to the skies. People are talking about the helicopters as I step off the bus, and begin to make my way, slowly, around the periphery of the Gardens. I am almost at the end of the street and about to turn right, to walk up to Piccadilly train station. Strange. The Gardens seem unusually busy. Last renovated in the 1970s they are not the sort of gardens you would want to spend too much time in, especially at night. Then there is a bang, a loud bang. A bang the like of which I have not heard before (or since). And then there is a hush. It is unnerving. Manchester city centre is never this quiet. And then there is noise and lots of it. People are screaming. Shop alarms are all ringing. And there is smoke where there shouldn’t be. I pause. Piccadilly Gardens is getting busier. I turn and walk to the train station. I know something has happened. I don’t know what. I figure I will find out soon. I do. My train is delayed by an hour. Not an uncommon occurrence of course. However, in this case the train instructor informs us this delay is due to an ‘unforeseen event’ in the centre of Manchester. Trains are unable to enter or exit the train station. People look at each other. No one says a word. A bomb has gone off in the centre of Manchester…

15 June 1996 and its aftermath

It is now fifteen years since a large explosion ripped through the heart of Manchester city centre. This was before New York and 9/11 and the images that accompanied it. It was before London and 7/7, the subsequent bombing in Madrid, and the more general growth in counter-terrorism urbanism. The viewing public was shocked by the scenes. Smoke was rising upwards while buildings were falling downwards. People were unsure where to run to, but had concluded that it was better to run than to walk. The three and a half thousand pound IRA bomb, left in a white van at the junction of Cross Street, Corporation Street and Market Street brought devastation to the surrounding area: literally creating a space. But what to do with it? In the immediate aftermath Manchester City Council, together with others, set about talking up the opportunities created by the destruction. While only a handful of buildings were structurally damaged, those in charge of the city would not be limited to pure necessity. They had their eyes on a bigger prize: a wholesale revalorization of a swathe of the centre.

The impetus for remaking the city centre wasn’t new or solely a result of the bomb; Manchester had already been undergoing redevelopment. To the south of the centre Hulme and Moss Side had been rebuilt. Nearer the centre, a series of new apartments had been built in Castlefield, next to the canal. All around the city centre old and disused exchanges and warehouses – remnants and reminders of the City’s industrial past – were being converted into apartments. New builds were emerging, as the price of land in the centre and to the south of the city continued to rise sharply. Gentrification was at full throttle. The ‘Northern Quarter’, adjacent to the centre, and the ‘Gay Village’ to the south were being constructed as sites of cosmopolitanism and difference, open and tolerant and ripe for marketing and exploitation. The City Council together with other city, regional and national agencies had taken a lead on the revalorization of the city centre and neighbouring areas. Capital had begun to return to the city, and people were not far behind it. That was the point. Those governing the city already knew what kind of city they wanted: theirs was a model borrowed in part from elsewhere but partly a product of Manchester.

Yet, some areas of the city centre had not kept apace. At the time there were concerns about what to do with the Arndale Centre. A prime example of all that is great about modernist architecture to some it may be but to many others it was viewed as an absolute eyesore. Next to it Shamble Squares was considered to be a magnet for social undesirables. Their behaviour, together with that of the alcoholics, the punks and the others that gathered there day in and day out was considered a threat to the project the Council was overseeing. Piccadilly Gardens, right in the centre of the city and organised loosely around a set of public gardens, showed signs of neglect. You took your chances if you walked through it at night. I was chased more than once by a group of alcohol-charged youths. That they failed to catch me said more about their drink consumption than it did about my turn of pace! In a flash at 11.15 on Saturday 15 June 1996 the future of each of these sites became up for grabs.

No sooner had the dust settled – literally – than plans were afoot to undertake a significant redevelopment of the retail core of the city. This unfolded over the following months. Speed was of the essence. The Trafford Centre was nearing completion in the neighbouring borough, and Manchester City Council were keen the city retained its share of what Harvey (1989) terms ‘the spatial division of consumption’. That it did and over the subsequent decade and a bit saw almost unbridled growth, as Manchester created a niche for itself as the regional retail centre. And the Council’s ‘silver lining’ story stuck. The following is not uncommon amongst those who write now about the city centre: ‘The IRA did the city a favour by forcing large-scale rebuilding of an area spoiled by the bad retail architecture of the 1960s’. So, the Council successfully packaged the post-Bomb redevelopment as an opportunity to radically overhaul the city centre, allowing them to pursue a narrow and aggressive consumption-driven agenda.

15 June 2011 and the current situation

Fast forward and what sort of city centre does Manchester have? Well it is one that certainly looks better. It consists of, amongst other things, cleaned up Victorian buildings, some new funky architecture, the odd piece of greenery, and a sprinkling of ‘public’ spaces. The core is punctuated by expensive clothes retailers of many sorts. It is awash with designer names. It has a Selfridges together with a Harvey Nics and the largest Marks & Spencers in Europe. It is also not possible to go far without coming across a bar, restaurant or pub. There is no shortage of hotels, at both the lower and the higher ends of the market. So, those consumer tourists who visit Manchester have somewhere to store their purchases, and don’t have to stumble far after a night eating and drinking. The Arndale Shopping Centre continues to be gentrified, although it may have reached its limits on that front. It retains a notional nod to its working class roots, while a growing proportion of its outlets seek to capture more of the middle class market. Piccadilly Gardens has been completely re-sculptured. There is now a water feature in the centre, and it is both a bus and a tram stop. At the corner of the Gardens is a large development, consisting of offices and bars and restaurants. This is an altogether more private ‘public’ space. As if to reinforce this, the area is now under the auspices of CityCo, a public-private partnership responsible for managing the city centre. This arrangement is emblematic of a new culture of ‘authoritarianism and control’ according to Anna Minton (2005: 40).

Piccadilly Gardens_EH Smith

Image: E H Smith

CityCo and its approach to urban ‘public’ space perhaps embodies the kind of centre Manchester now has in 2011. It is one made in the image of residential and retail consumption. The core is a business, the city centre an experience to be packaged and sold. It is about stakeholders (or is shareholders) rather than citizens. The over reliance on residential consumption was brought into sharp relief recently. The over-supply of apartments that had accrued in the preceding decade left the city centre housing market horribly exposed as the economic winds of change blew through the city during 2008 and 2009. Many apartments simply could not be sold and a series of incomplete building sites remain testament to how quickly capital can flow out of a city. When the sums don’t add up, capital cuts its losses and runs. While many bars and restaurants have remained viable businesses during the recession, others have not been so fortunate. Empty outlets have begun to pop up around the centre.

Whether the city centre model pursued so vigorously by an alliance of the City Council and various representatives of capital is robust and resilient enough to survive the next couple of years is a moot point. On a number of indicators those in Manchester are set to get a whole lot poorer. With more public sector employment cuts on the horizon and a private sector that is just about muddling through the omens are not good. And remember, this is already a city that is one of the poorest in the UK. Perhaps that is to miss the point however? Maybe the City Centre we have not is not for the citizens of the city. Somewhere along the line it was wrestled away from us and we did not even notice. The Council together with a number of other stakeholders placed all their bets on a particular sector of the economy, a decision which raises questions about the Centre’s very sustainability.

The Centre seems to be for those who come from elsewhere, those who can continue to engage in one form of conspicuous consumption or another. For sure the city centre remains busy. Are people spending enough money though? Perhaps out of the next couple of years will emerge a realization that there should be more to a city centre than consumption? A rebalancing to the debate might open up the possibility for a reinsertion of ‘the public’ into the city, as problematic as that term remains. We live in hope.

Harvey D (1989) The Urban Experience. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, Maryland.
Minton A (2009) Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty First Century. Penguin Books: London

1 thought on “Explosive urbanism: fifteen years after 15/6

  1. Pingback: The legacy of the IRA bomb  —   MULE

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