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Manchester’s new housing chief: ‘We want to lead on modular’

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Manchester’s new housing boss says greater use of modular construction methods, more community involvement in housing design and speeded up sustainability targets are among his main priorities

Jon Sawyer, who became Manchester City Council’s director of housing and residential growth last month, said the authority was delivering homes faster than its targets outlined in the emerging Greater Manchester spatial framework.

In his first major interview since his appointment, he said this rate of progress would provide the space needed for the authority to explore the delivery of new types of homes in the city.

Sawyer, who was previously head of custom build housing at Igloo Regeneration, said: ‘I wouldn’t rest on my laurels but always being ahead of what we need to achieve gives us a degree of capacity to look at those options and innovate.’

He added that he wanted to revive the once-thriving community housing sector within the city.

‘It is not an alien concept to the city, but it has definitely fallen away since the 1970s and 80s,’ he said. ‘It would be great to revisit that.’

And he said the council had land at its disposal to deliver projects, with a number of resident groups enthusiastic about helping deliver projects.

The approach could involve residents inspiring and helping guide the design of new buildings, Sawyer added.

On modular housing, Sawyer said he was ‘agnostic’ about particular types of system. ‘We will be exploring all of those options – and encouraging the wider marketplace to deliver them,’ he said.

‘We are getting huge interest from manufacturers with the potential to get involved in our schemes but also starting to talk to us about locating their factories in Manchester.’

On sustainability, he said: ‘We already have long-term targets but we are looking to see whether we can accelerate those.’

But he warned that the new areas of innovation he has earmarked would not be rushed.

‘What we have to do is carefully work our way through the gears of advancing our design aspirations and introducing the aspirations that I described in a way in which we continue to deliver and we progressively innovate,’ he said.

We have to carefully work our way through the gears of advancing our design aspirations

‘If you change everything all at once you can have the best looking schemes on paper but not necessarily translate them into delivery because you are trying to change too much too soon. It is a carefully structured approach to move from one place to another.’

Sawyer said that the city’s residential density was set to continue increasing in coming years.

The spatial framework, currently under review, would require 85 per cent of Manchester’s proposed target of 3,000 homes a year to come in the form of flats.

‘This could include more high-rise apartments,’ he said. ‘If you look at the Northern Gateway consultation draft regeneration framework you will see that there is a new tower earmarked for relatively close to the city centre.

‘In further out locations, we are starting to explore higher densities than we would have done in the past. If you go to the suburbs they are two to three storeys – in some areas we have to explore whether a higher density is needed. But in these locations that doesn’t mean tower blocks.’

The city council has already begun a new wave of council housing, with the first phase of 60 homes underway – 40 for affordable rent developed directly and 20 purchased from a developer.

It is now drawing up plans for a further 150-home second phase, with 50 shared ownership homes, 50 at affordable rents and 50 for social rent.

Sawyer also highlighted the importance of the council’s joint ventures in housing delivery, including the Matrix housing investment fund created using the local authority’s pension fund.

Matrix is delivering a first phase of 240 homes, with 120 for sale and 120 for market rent.

‘It is early days but this has been very successful, so we are working up a second phase of over 300 homes; a mix of market sale and market rent but this time including affordable housing,’ he said.

Sawyer added that he wanted to encourage opportunities for smaller architecture practices to participate in large residential schemes within the city.

‘There are some great Manchester practices big and small and there are some practices who are coming from elsewhere in country opening new offices,’ he said. ‘We are keen to support opportunities for all of them.

‘It is my view that while there will be opportunities for bigger practices, it would be remiss not to look out for opportunities for smaller practices. It is about creating richness.’

Farrells northern gateway neighbourhoods

Farrells northern gateway neighbourhoods

Northern Gateway Neighbourhoods

But he thought it was too early to say whether the detailed design of buildings within Terry Farrell’s 15,000 home Northern Gateway regeneration area would be done on a block-by-block or phase-by-phase basis.

‘One thing you can be sure of is that if we start with a design team led by the calibre of Terry Farrell that sets a benchmark of where we want to be as we go forward with delivery,’ he said.

Sawyer said he was ‘really enjoying’ his new role after joining from developer Igloo last month.

‘Manchester is a great place to work. There is a real buzz around development activity and that is only going to grow. I am keen to see great quality architects getting schemes built in our city – if they are interested they should come and knock on my door.’

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