Manchester is synonymous with restless ambition and an ability to keep transforming and regenerating.
Less immediately associated with the city, but just as inspiring, is its heritage.
All of these elements come together in the neo-gothic masterpiece that is Manchester Town Hall.
This year I discovered that I share a special day with this icon of the city. It turns out that 13 September was not just the date that I came into the world, but also the anniversary of its official opening.
This grand, Grade I-listed building, which opened 140 years ago in 1877, is considered by many to be one of the very finest examples of Victorian architecture. It was created as an announcement of the city’s arrival on the world stage and an enduring symbol of its confidence and ambition in addition to its more prosaic role as the seat of local government.
That spirit of ambition and confidence still animates the city today. It informed the decision – the right one but not an easy one in the current climate – to embark on a major programme of repair, partial restoration and refurbishment costing £330m, to ensure that building remains fit for purpose for another 140 years.
While still structurally sound, many part of the building are seriously showing their age and in need of urgent attention without which parts of it would slide into decay and disuse. From a creaking heating system to crumbling stonework, tilting chimneys and bowing leaded windows, the years have taken their toll. The building was also not designed to modern access and safety standards. Without intervention, parts of it would fall into disuse.
We cannot allow this to happen, which is why we have embarked on the Our Town Hall project. Between now and 2024 we will safeguard the building and neighbouring Albert Square for future generations. From 15 January next year the building will be closed to the public and staff and elected members currently based there relocated, many to the adjoining Town Hall extension. The Lord Mayor will move to our central library.
It is an enormous undertaking and a substantial investment, which is why it is vital that we get it right.
This doesn’t just mean lovingly repairing and protecting the building’s many heritage features, although of course this is a crucial element.
It also means sympathetically enhancing some things. In the 1860s when the building was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the master architect whose other achievements include London’s National History Museum, access, safety and energy efficiency standards were very different. So, for example, the installation of additional lifts and a more effective heating system is required.
Hundreds of artefacts, such as civic gifts that help tell the story of the city, have been accumulated over the years and improving public access to these as well as the building as a whole is also integral to the project.
This will be one of the biggest heritage projects the country has seen for decades and capturing the social value of it will be crucial to its success.
Social value is a key driver for this project, with an overarching aim and objective for the project to deliver economic and social value for Manchester. As well as supporting jobs, creating apprenticeships and nurturing skills we are taking a Manchester-first approach to procurement to ensure local firms are well placed to be part of the supply chain. All bidders tendering for work will be assessed on how they can open up employment, training and growth opportunities for the people and businesses of Manchester.
Manchester Town Hall is much more than just a building. It’s an icon of the city. The same applies to Albert Square, a public space which has witnessed everything from sporting celebrations to more sombre occasions such as the moving vigil that took place after the Manchester Arena terror attack.
That’s why we’ve called the project Our Town Hall. Manchester City Council is proud to be the custodian of this gem of a building on behalf of the city and indeed the nation. If you’re visiting Manchester this year please do come and have a look around. Even those of us who work here every day still look around in awe. The town hall was here before us and will remain a symbol of civic pride long after we’ve gone. We look forward to it celebrating anniversaries for many, many years to come.
Click here if you’re interested in finding out more about the project
Joanne Roney, chief executive, Manchester City Council