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Clearance to Renaissance: New Islington

"Welcome to Labour’s Vietnam": by the 1990s, East Manchester’s Cardroom Estate had become one of the worst in the country. Less than 40% of the tenants were classed as "economically active." More than half the houses stood empty, doors and windows tinned. Manufacturing employment had collapsed. People were voting with their feet. Those who remained were harassed by drug dealing, joyriding, vandalism and thieving. "Bomber Harris left Dresden in better condition."

Low-rise Cardroom – two-and three-bedroom houses – had been built by the Council in the 1970s to replace Victorian terraces deemed to be unfit. These had housed workers in the mills and factories of Ancoats, "the world’s first industrial suburb."

Never slow to exploit Whitehall funding, Manchester City Council embraced quango English
Partnerships’ challenge of "new villages intended to set the standard for 21st-century living and serve as a model for the creation of new communities in England."

By 1999, the Urban Regeneration Company New East Manchester was in place. In 2000, the innovative and enterprising Urban Splash was selected as lead developer. The "New Islington" brand was resurrected from the 1880s map – chosen by the tenants who were intensively consulted about the future of their area. For some of them, this was the second experience of slum clearance and rehousing. The stakes were high.

Never short on vision, Urban Splash aspired "to create the best place in Manchester." A courageous decision was to appoint a controversial starchitect masterplanner, "the bones of the plan came from Will Alsop’s sketch, made with a glass of wine in one hand and a thick felt tip pen in the other – with Alsop there was no other way."

His big idea was to create a new canal through the middle of the site – a dramatic focal point linking the historic Rochdale Canal to the north and the Ashton Canal to the south.

1700 new homes, offices, workplaces and a school, connected by a fine new boulevard, would revitalise the entire area. Alsop went on to design CHIPS – 142 canalside
apartments inspired by three fat chips balancing on top of each other.

Early developments included Islington Square by architects FAT: postmodern homes with "oversized, cartoonish, Dutch gables." The canal link, new park, and marina with colourful narrowboats and the transformed vehicle / pedestrian New Mill Street, began to give form to the plans.

Progress was stalled by the crash of 2008. Half of the site remained undeveloped - "surreal
apocalyptic scenes."

Urban Splash survived but is no longer lead developer. At last, the post-crash revival is live. The long-awaited Free School is under construction. The historic Ancoats Dispensary has been saved from the wrecker’s ball by local activists. New homes at Islington Wharf are attracting families. The Ancoats Canal Project is one of many bottom-up community initiatives. Massive investment is promised through Manchester Life – a multimillion-pound deal between the City Council and the Abu Dhabi Investment Group.

Let’s hope that Manchester’s legendary leadership will never abandon the ambition and promise of New Islington…Manchester’s Amsterdam.