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Manchester’s private rented boom creating ‘dull and unimaginative’ homes

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More than half of planning permissions in Manchester are for private rented sector housing, according to new figures. But architects in the city are concerned the sector’s rapid growth is stifling architectural flair 

A total of 8,950 homes currently have planning permission in the city, a 67 per cent increase on the 5,355 units at the same stage last year. Of these, 4,825 (54 per cent) are in the private rented sector (PRS) with a further 3,610 (40 per cent) for open market sale. 

The remaining 6 per cent are for sites to be delivered through the Affordable Homes Programme or earmarked for retirement living.

Paul Beardmore, director of housing at Manchester City Council, said the overall rise in residential planning permissions showed a new confidence in the Manchester market. The city has had 3,000 residential starts on site so far this year – double last year’s 1,500 and treble its ‘low point’ of just over 1,000 in 2012.

But Tim Groom, director at Tim Groom Architects, which last year revealed plans for a £30 million PRS scheme of 134 homes in Great Ancoats Street, Manchester, expressed worry that the rise of PRS – and the huge amount of funding flowing into the sector from institutions and pension funds – was stifling architectural flair.

‘To be honest, it is getting a bit dull and unimaginative,’ he said. ‘The funds want a standard type of apartment: two identical bedrooms either side of a lounge.

‘They have their own specs which specify what type of sink and tap and worktop they want. They don’t care what the building looks on the outside so much as how much they can save on maintenance costs internally.’ 

It is getting a bit dull and unimaginative. The funds want a standard type of apartment: two identical bedrooms either side of a lounge

The PRS is now the fastest growth area of the UK’s property market, according to consultancy Savills. Earlier this year it released research showing that since 2010 the value of assets in the residential rental market had increased by 55 per cent to £1.29 trillion.

Private rented homes make up a ‘hefty proportion’ of Manchester’s housing pipeline, Beardmore said. ‘After the recession we reviewed our previous policy which favoured owner occupation and took the view that PRS would deliver the same outcome,’ he added.

‘We have a disproportionately high level of social rented housing stock in the city – it makes up nearly a third of the homes – and we have been looking to work with the grain to get a decent PRS.’

The rise of Manchester’s PRS is ‘very noticeable’, according to Frances Chaplin, director at PRP Architects, who observes that a further 400 homes come forward at each month’s planning committee. ‘The generation that is coming into the digital sector and start-up firms tend to have a different view on a home, and PRS gives them what they are looking for,’ she said.

Phil Doyle, director at 5plus Architects, which was behind the first large PRS scheme in Greater Manchester at Trinity Way in Salford, added that there was a danger of the PRS boom leading to an oversupply of one and two-bedroom apartments in the city.

I find it odd that most of these schemes require you to cohabit with one of your friends

‘I find it odd that most of these schemes require you to cohabit with one of your friends,’ he said. ‘I think some stock with three or four bedrooms would go down well, particularly among students.’

Beardmore said he expected the supply of ‘entry level’ PRS housing would exceed demand, and that a ‘savvy developer’ would target the ‘premium and medium-level markets’.

He added that the council, which has finished consulting on new residential design guidance, is working on a strategy to increase the supply of student housing in areas ‘more appropriate for that group’ so they are not competing with low-income workers at the lower end of the market. It is also supporting the development of family housing in areas such as Miles Platting and Collyhurst outside Manchester city centre.

‘The demand for apartments is undersupplied in the core of the city, but we also need larger homes elsewhere,’ said Beardmore.

Tim Groom Architects' proposed PRS scheme in Great Ancoats Street, Manchester

Tim Groom Architects’ proposed PRS scheme in Great Ancoats Street, Manchester

Tim Groom Architects’ proposed PRS scheme in Great Ancoats Street, Manchester

But architect Chaplin suggested the city centre would benefit from a ‘better cross-section of age population’, which would require building bigger two or three-bedroom homes. ‘There is a huge untapped market among older downsizers, who need more space for storage than is often provided in PRS schemes,’ she added.

Beardmore expects a high proportion of the planned 8,950 homes to be delivered by the end of 2017/18 as it is ‘virtually all detailed permissions’. The council, he said, tends not to encourage outline planning permission so as to discourage speculative landowners putting in applications to increase land values.

‘The way the council sets its stall out is good for the city,’ said Dave McCall, director at OMI Architects. ‘They try to flush out developers who are just trying to turn sites. Deliverability is fundamental.’

McCall added that, if demand for PRS dipped, schemes could ‘flip to outright sale fairly easily’ as Manchester’s for-sale market is also ‘buoyant’.

But he questioned whether the North American model of private rent accommodation, which includes the provision of services such as gyms and swimming pools, would take off in the UK, where people ‘are not great at paying service charges’.

He said: ‘I suspect the schemes that will do best will be the ones in good locations with good balconies. Beyond that, people can take or leave the frills.’

Doyle, whose practice 5plus Architects is receiving more and more CVs from people priced out of London, said ‘everyone is testing the [PRS] market’ at the moment. ‘How much depth in the market is there to pay for these facilities?’ he questioned. ‘There is a lot of crystal-ball gazing going on.’

Council figures show that the population of Manchester has grown by 54,000 since 2009 to just over 540,000. The core city-centre population – currently at just over 50,000 – is expected to reach 80,000 by 2024.

But Beardmore said that, despite the growth in residential starts, there was still significant undersupply to meet this demand. ‘With this in mind, significant capacity remains, and there are major opportunities for investors and developers to bring forward development in high-profile, but nevertheless unplanned, city-centre locations,’ he said.

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