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Can Manchester grow and go carbon zero?

Irwellriverside felixmooneeram
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Richard Waite investigates the challenges faced by the city region in meeting its ambitious carbon target while continuing to grow upwards and outwards  

‘It is a symbol of our growing economic strength that we’ve got a skyline that looks US style,’ said the Manchester City Region’s first elected mayor, Andy Burnham, at this year’s MIPIM in March. ‘It sends a message.’ 

But what kind of message? 

Burnham has a dilemma. As well as wanting to drive forward the region’s massive development expansion – the number of towers under construction in Manchester continues to increase – he has pledged to deliver a super-tough strategy to combat climate change.

To hit the targets, every home in Manchester would need to be brought in line with low-carbon standards within the next 10 years

Last summer, well ahead of April’s Extinction Rebellion protests and declarations of a climate emergency, the Labour politician launched a plan to make the region zero carbon by 2038. This is 12 years ahead of the national target recently demanded by the government’s Climate Change Committee.   

What’s more, the region has vowed to make all new development net zero carbon by 2028.

These are admirable science-based targets. Yet the fine details of this road map to zero carbon remain vague.

‘There’s no doubt that this is a political headline grabber from the mayor’s office and let’s not forget he’s up for re-election next year,’ says former deputy chief executive of Urban Splash Nick Johnson.

‘But it doesn’t pack any punches about how [zero carbon by 2038] is going to be delivered and who is going to pay for it.’

So is the delivery of a zero-carbon future for the Manchester city region really feasible? What does it even mean? And how compatible is this super-green target with the Northern Powerhouse’s growth agenda?

Manchester City Region, with its population of more than 3 million, was set up in 2011 to give more power and control to its 10 local authorities.

According to Burnham, it is the fastest growing city region in the country.

Today there are 11,000 homes on site within Manchester City Council’s boundaries alone and a further 10,000 homes with full planning permission. 

Indeed, if all the current plans are realised, there could soon be 25 towers taller than 100m across Greater Manchester. 

Meanwhile Manchester Airport is undergoing a massive £1 billion transformation while its neighbouring enterprise zone is also set for expansion. And, earlier this year, Transport for the North lobbied government for £39 billion of funding for Northern Powerhouse Rail – an improved rail network with the region at its core.

Victoria street manchester

Victoria Street, Manchester

Source: Richard Waite

Victoria Street looking on to Greengate, Salford

Yet against this backdrop of business and development, Manchester wants to cap its total annual carbon emissions at 15 million tonnes. To do this the region will have to make a 13 per cent year-on-year reduction in its current emissions.

A quick look at the Manchester’s high-rise, mainly concrete, steel and glass, construction scene suggests this could be a tough ask. Many of these were designed and approved years ago under different policy frameworks driven by growth rather than green agendas.

As Aisling McNulty, development director at developer Bruntwood, says: ‘The industry has been constantly evolving since the inception of projects like those, and it will take a while for the net-zero buildings being developed now to come to the fore. That said, there is still a significant shift which we need to make to reduce carbon in the design and operation of buildings.’ 

The task is undeniably massive.

Gavin Elliott, a director at BDP’s Manchester office, admits that the practice’s own efforts over the last few years seem to have been ‘dwarfed by the scale of the challenge’.

He estimates that to hit the proposed carbon budget targets, every existing home in Manchester would need to be brought in line with low-carbon standards within the next 10 years, meaning a huge retrofit programme.

Every commercial building in the city will also have to significantly lower its energy and ‘be using 100 per cent renewable electricity from local generation and a decarbonised National Grid’ by 2038.

Reusing existing stock rather than bulldozing ahead with shiny new schemes will need to be spearheaded by a committed leadership 

Most of this change, he says, will have to ‘be front-loaded over the next five to 10 years to give us space in our carbon budget for the even more difficult challenges between 2030 and 2038’.

Effectively, more will have to be done to minimise carbon emissions at the construction stage rather than waiting for reductions through in-use energy.

However to date that shift has been hampered by developers and consultants ‘hiding behind the existing regulative framework’ – a framework admittedly aligned with the UK’s increasingly outdated 2008 Climate Change Act.

Elliott adds: ‘There’s still a massive amount of self-denial among politicians and policy-makers in trying to pretend we are moving quickly enough.

‘However, the truth is the science has moved on and people are only now, belatedly, waking up to the true scale of the challenge and the real urgency to act now before it’s too late.’

Ordsallchord paulkaralius

Ordsallchord paulkaralius

Source: Felix Mooneeram

Irwell Riverside housing by ShedKM for Urban Splash

In some ways Manchester was ahead of the game. In 2010 the Manchester Climate Change Board was founded (originally under its earlier title Stakeholder Steering Group on Climate Change) – an independent advisory panel which includes Manchester City Council as a partner organisation. Bruntwood’s chief executive Chris Oglesby is a member too.

The current Zero Carbon Framework was drafted by the board’s operational arm, the Manchester Climate Change Agency. This was then passed to the city council which formally endorsed it, including the 2038 target.

The 2028 ambition for all new developments is enshrined in the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF), which is still in draft status. The revised 2019 document is being drawn up in collaboration with URBED and is expected to go to public inquiry. It also focuses heavily on the environment, aiming to reduce the amount of land in the green belt earmarked for development. 

In terms of leading by example, Manchester City Council is driving its own super-eco housing agenda with plans for a prototype modular 75-home council house scheme on an as yet unnamed plot. The project, designed by Sixtwo Architects, is being backed by George Clarke and will feature in a new Channel 4 series.   

This authority-led drive was hinted at in September when former custom-build chief at Igloo Regeneration Jon Sawyer – now Manchester City Council’s director of housing and residential growth – told the AJ he was pushing for greater use of offsite construction methods and was speeding up its sustainability drive.

That modular journey has already begun in the private sector with efforts such as Urban Splash and ShedKM’s 72 houses at Irwell Riverside in Salford. Another 156 flats are also proposed there.

Then there is City of Trees – an initiative to reinvigorate Greater Manchester’s landscape by transforming ‘underused, unloved woodland and planting a tree for every man, woman and child who lives there’ over the next 25 years. That’s around three million trees.

Plans are underway too for the Beelines system – a city-region-wide cycling and walking network featuring around 1,000 miles of routes and 75 miles of ‘Dutch-style’ segregated bike lanes.

Banning glass towers would only have a fairly minimal effect in achieving zero-carbon development across the entire Greater Manchester region, most of which has no towers

A proposed clean air zone, due to go out to public consultation later this year, will cover all 10 local authority areas in Greater Manchester and introduce charges for the biggest polluters. Lorries and coaches would have to pay £100 to enter the zone – the largest outside London – though private cars would be exempted.

Yet while progress is being made, there remain significant challenges to reaching a carbon-free future; not least what zero carbon means on a regional scale.

Katie Tonkinson, a partner at Hawkins\Brown who set up the practice’s Manchester office, admits zero carbon remains a ‘confusing term’.

‘Burnham needs to co-ordinate with the groups currently working up the definition of zero carbon to ensure the industry knows what he means by the terminology,’ she says. ‘It is only then we can start to achieve it and compare apples with apples.’ 

At the moment, she adds, the term is only really being applied to energy use. For Tonkinson, the region needs laser-like attention on whole-life carbon.

‘We need to reduce [carbon] from all sectors of the economy by 2030 to meet the goals of the most recent IPCC report,’ she says. 

‘This would naturally result in certain things such as large areas of glass curtain walling and complex aluminium façades being rejected.’

Johnson agrees that there are a wide range of interpretations of ‘carbon neutral’ and while ‘capturing the political zeitgeist’ it is a hugely complex issue. ‘You can carbon-offset your development by absolving your carbon sins in the form of buying carbon credits,’ he says. ‘But is that acceptable? 

‘For new development to be truly carbon neutral you would have to be specific about how users get to their homes or workplace and remove car parking, except for electric vehicles. [And remember electric cars] are not carbon neutral themselves, they’re only zero emission at the point of use.’ 

Once understood, it will then be a question of motivating the development world to alter its traditional models. 

According to Jason Eccles, co-founder of Manchester’s Artform Architects, the zero-carbon commitment ‘must be driven by strong leadership at council level’. Pledges made by developers before consent must be monitored and followed through.

Eccles says: ‘As more towers are proposed and get built in Manchester, there certainly needs to be a tall buildings policy which sets out environmental standards for towers and skyscrapers and ensures these high-rise schemes are developed in a sustainable way, taking into account both demand and the effect on surrounding environments across the city.   

‘Taking the approach akin to New York, where glass towers have been banned, could certainly form part of this. However this would only have a fairly minimal effect in the grand scheme of achieving zero-carbon development across the entire Greater Manchester region, most of which has no towers.’

For councillor Derek Antrobus, lead member for planning and sustainable development at Salford City Council, it ‘is only lack of regulation that stands in the way’ of delivering net-zero-carbon homes, given the technologies that already exist.

‘Unless there is a level playing field, developers will be forced by the market to ‘play it safe’ and stick with existing standards and regulations,’ he says. ‘The challenge now is in the government’s hands. Will they uphold our proposed planning policies at the public inquiry into the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework?’

Antrobus insists the proposed policy only demands that buildings achieve a certain standard; it doesn’t prescribe how that should be achieved, ‘giving architects and designers scope for their own creativity and for new techniques and technologies to be taken on board’.

He adds: ‘But let’s not run away with the idea that what is being done with the spatial framework is significant. It merely replaces what had been government policy until [then communities secretary] Eric Pickles abandoned the commitment to zero-carbon homes. It only deals with new development when by far the greater challenge is retrofit.’

For a city driven forward by growth and finding space for new people and business, reusing existing stock rather than bulldozing ahead with shiny new schemes will need to be spearheaded by a convincing and committed leadership.

Asked whether retrofit should be the architect’s default position in the region, Burnham told the AJ in Cannes: ‘It’s about finding that sweet spot where good design meets the highest environmental standards, so by designing it a certain way you’re not only making it as carbon neutral as possible but you’re also giving it the longest life possible.’ 

He concluded: ‘In the 50s and 60s we built a lot of buildings that quickly went out of fashion and lost public support. We don’t want to make those mistakes, we want to build for 100 years.’  


Helen Gribbon, engineer at Renaissance and member of the property chapter of the Manchester Climate Change Board
The message is clear from the science and the environmental community: we – the human race – have to act [to stop climate change]. But will the developer’s conscience, therefore, result in action and, in reality, will that ever work?

Providing a greener built environment will initially cost financially. The world of development is commercially driven and there has to be more than a pricked conscience to drive change.

Our own mayor is fully committed to a greener future and has empowered the city’s people, harnessing their passion and drive to make change. Citizen Social Science, a new approach where citizens lead in formulating policies over policy-makers, can catalyse transformative change and be the key to effective climate action. This was the intent with the Greater Manchester Green Summit 2019 held on 25 March.

Policy will need to play its part

We can all change our own personal behaviours in various ways but, for the majority to act, policy will need to play its part. Policy-driven initiatives requiring developers to demonstrate cradle-to-cradle proposals at planning stage, combined with visible actions by the city, will be key to driving that change. An example from Manchester is the drive to allow only electric vehicles into the city centre, reducing vehicular carbon emissions to almost zero.

Angeliki Stogia, Manchester City Council’s executive member for the environment, planning and transport
We are due to begin the review of our local plan later this year and the document will need to respond to the council’s recently stated ambition and to the policy framework provided by the emerging GMSF. We want to have an open discussion with the development community and the wider city in drawing up our new local plan and to ensure that the policies we propose have wide support. One thing is clear, however – business as usual will not be an option.

 One thing is clear, however - business as usual will not be an option

Before having this wider dialogue, it would be premature to say what particular policy proposal we may decide to adopt. Clearly the design of new buildings can make an important contribution to reducing carbon emissions.

Most of the buildings that will be in place in 2038 are already with us, so it is also really important that we consider how retrofit programmes can be developed and scaled up, both in terms of improved insulation, but also the introduction of new heating systems.

One of the really important markers of success will be the extent to which, as a city, we can develop a compelling call to action that engages residents and all the key partners that need to make a contribution to achieving our aims. It is very important that the reasons why we need to achieve carbon neutrality are understood by as many people in the city as possible. The development industry has an important role to play, but it’s important that this isn’t seen as a responsibility for just one sector, it needs the widest possible buy-in.

Magdalena Haener, architect, of Pride Road Manchester South
Financial rewards and tax breaks would be a huge driver in encouraging carbon-neutral design and development.

The 14 new planning applications for skyscrapers in Manchester should have a carbon tax, and the money generated from this tax should go to carbon-reducing promotion work and energy efficiency initiatives.

As architects we need to be more mindful about the carbon footprint of our designs. Architects have to target the issues [involving] loss of heat and solar gain in used and new buildings. We also need to consider – and offer to our clients – green building materials that can be used as alternatives.

But architects are limited. Some incentives (tax relief, for example) for our clients would be the greatest help, as it is clients who decide whether to insulate their house or not.

Gwyn Roberts, head of housing and policy at BRE Global
The 2028 target is a great step forward but begs the question: why wait (almost) 10 years? London boroughs are delivering all major schemes currently to the net zero carbon standard; so why not Greater Manchester? Given the critical situation we are in, why wait?

Are towers all that bad?

[In terms of the City’s huge number of skyscrapers] are towers all that bad? Tower structures benefit from low land requirement and also low energy demand, as they are inherently energy-efficient because of their low levels of exposed areas of fabric. Additionally, they facilitate high population densities, which allows for low-impact lifestyles within compact, urban locations.

The schemes we are involved with promote a significantly enhanced fabric specification: minimal cold bridging, very low air permeability, and good U-values, thereby further limiting the energy demand of the structures. Usually this is coupled to high-efficiency mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, again limiting energy demand. This is driven in part by the need to gain Part L compliance when applying a ‘full electric’ heating strategy.

The issue we face in Manchester and Salford is therefore not necessarily the tower buildings themselves, or how they are constructed, but how they are being heated and cooled. The shift will require an acceptance of highly efficient centralised plant (eg CHP or heat pumps) and/or connections to district heating where available to provide heating and cooling as efficiently as possible. Finally, we expect there will be a carbon offset contribution to mitigate the remaining CO2 emissions. In London this is currently about £1,250 per apartment.

Stakeholder Steering Group on Climate Change

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