Reclaiming whose city?

Article published: Wednesday, April 4th 2012

A fortnight ago, MULE reported on the arrest of six people who had squatted the disused Kro2 bar on Oxford Road against plans to turn the site into a Tesco – and more broadly against the steady “corporate takeover” of the city centre. How do incoming proposals to criminalise squatting in residential properties relate to Manchester’s shifting character? And what are the underlying forces behind these changes?

Crticism of Tesco and other high street chains has become common fare in British politics, in part due to their aggressive expansion on high streets up across the country. A quick glance at changes along the Oxford Road provides evidence of this in Manchester. 200 metres up the road from Kro2 bar, former night club ‘Jilly’s Rockworld’ turned into a Tesco in 2011 (with a Pizza Express replacing the Music Box next door), and a new Sainsbury’s recently opened opposite Big Hands near the Universities.

Small businesses, environmentalists and local residents have often led opposition to new stores and even centre ground politicians such as Lib Dem Councillor Marc Ramsbottom have raised concerns over the “monoculture….dominated by chainstores” that is being created in central Manchester.

Yet as the Kro2 protesters, who launched a facebook group called, “Reclaim Your City” were keen to point out, “This isn’t just about Tesco, bad as they are.” The Kro2 occupation was an act of dissent against the creeping loss of community spaces in central Manchester and also against new plans to criminalise squatting in residential properties, which passed through the House of Lords last Tuesday 27 March. Squatting has historically been used to reclaim disused public spaces – and turn them back to community use. A local example of this is ‘The Okasional Cafe’  which drew its inspiration from similar squatted social centres in Barcelona in the 1990s. Incidentally, one of the earliest OK Cafes was at the site of the other Kro Bar opposite the University of Manchester Students Union back in 1998.

How are the squat ban and corporatisation issues linked? Despite the myths pushed in sections of the media about residents having their houses squatted while they were out to the shops, the new law that criminalises squatting is more about protecting large property owners than ordinary homeowners. As the recent campaign from Squatters Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) noted, “The vast majority of these empty buildings are owned by large corporations, banks, offshore companies, local authorities, other government departments, and not by private individuals.” Housing solicitor Giles Peaker commented on the proposed laws, “The whole thing would make virtually no difference to homeowners whatsoever.”

Be careful what you wish for

The Kro2 protest aimed to draw attention to this wider context and also open up a space to ask how the dominance of corporate interests is maintained. At a local level, Greater Manchester Police played an important part in the repression of the Kro2 protest after seemingly unlawfully forcing entry to the building, arresting everyone inside, and later releasing them without charge after re-securing the site for property giants Bruntwood. The six people say they are now making plans to sue the police for wrongful arrest.

At a political level however, the cross-party orthodoxy that economic growth acts as an efficient wealth generator needs to be questioned. George Osborne’s budget last week was “unashamedly pro-business” and Manchester City Council and the Labour Party are calling for a return to economic growth as a way out of the latest crisis. The TUC ‘March for the Alternative’ in 2011 also included calls to enlarge the economic pie with the banner ‘Jobs, Growth and Justice’. While there are obviously large differences between these groups, there is a common repetition of the mantra that ‘growth is good’. Instead there needs to be a greater deal of scrutiny as to what outcomes are produced by this growth model. Do we make a rod for our backs?

In the print edition of the Manchester Evening News, Tesco responded to the Kro2 protest with claims that a new store would create “around twenty jobs”.  Whatever the proposal, claims of job creation are dangled in front of us like a golden carrot. The underlying assumption is that investment equals growth equals prosperity.

But does this growth model lead to prosperity? Putting aside the environmental concerns of endless growth on a planet of finite resources, what sort of jobs are being created and where does this prosperity go? The creation of a handful of well-paid management positions and lots more low-paid low-skilled roles should not be a measure of a successful economy. The loss of community space doesn’t seem like a worthwhile price to pay for 20 jobs most of which will be precarious and low paid – especially when we might find ourselves pushed out of them for a workfare scheme a few years down the line.

And is another corporate store really that good for Manchester’s economy if large swathes of the profit is siphoned off in executive pay? Tesco pre-tax profits stood at £3.54 billion in 2011, with CEO Phillip Clark able to receive a maximum pay package of £6,900,000. Meanwhile the The Fair Pay Network has criticised the major supermarket chains for entrenching poverty by failing to pay most of their staff a UK Living Wage.

This isn’t a question of being against new jobs, but an objection to how claims of new employment opportunities can be used to justify any new proposal, even if these new jobs do not create any new prosperity for those on the shop floor. By championing economic growth and its corporate guardians, we increase the political power of these elites both locally and nationally. The Kro2 protest aimed to highlight this root cause and the join the dots between the issues of corporate power and the incoming further criminalisation of squatting. We don’t want to grow the pie in Manchester, we want to challenge how the existing pie is sliced up.

Robert Taylor

Corrections: This article has been amended from an earlier version to make clear that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill proposes to criminalise squatting in residential properties and not all properties, and that the Bill has yet to be formally made an Act of Parliament until it returns to the Commons after the Easter recess

More: Local economy, Opinion, Policing


  1. Manchester FoE did a study of the effect of Tesco in Burnage on local shops… within six months all local shops had a negative view of it, many were now struggling to keep going and two had closed. Overall, the effect of Tescos was a net loss of jobs for the area

    (MFoE are interested in following this up, if anyone is interested please get in touch!)

    Comment by alexanansi on April 11, 2012 at 10:03 am
  2. ‘Overall, the effect of Tescos was a net loss of jobs for the area’

    Not strictly true.

    The overall effect of the opening of Tescos was that lots of local people freely chose to go shopping there and not at the shops they’d previously used.

    Those local people are to blame for the net loss of jobs, not Tescos. Nobody is forced to shop at Tescos. It invites people to do so.

    It seems that some local people don’t care about the jobs of some other local people.

    This should give us some indication as to why socialism never works.

    Comment by simon on April 12, 2012 at 10:27 am
  3. @simon ‘Not strictly true’..really? And your proof is? How about you use your brain to think first? This is classic predatory economics, whereby supermarkets and other oligopolistic industries use their huge resources to undercut local suppliers, force them out of business, thereby creating a monopoloy at which point they can do as they like. These industries huge lobbying abilities then have laws passed that will help their endeavours, all in the name of ‘free market’ economics. We’ve seen what happens when you strip away regulation in the finance industry, the greedy and corrupt thrive to distort those same ‘free markets’ which in turn leads to market seizure, recession, depression. And who pays? Well of course the poor, minorities (apart from of course the already obscenely rich) and those least able to fight back. When big business operates without reference to societal benefits/losses as opposed to ‘shareholder value’ alone, there tends to be only one result which is a race to the bottom and the destruction of environment and rights. These businesses destroy the social fabric which in turns leads to alienation and a breakdown of what is termed ‘the social contract’. I have no idea why anybody would ever wish to live in a society full of desperate and poor people. Doesn’t this fill you with dismay? Let’s hope you don’t become a direct victim of their behaviour, but in the meantime why not have a think about what sort of a person you really are and whether your support for Tesco’s policies reflect well against that self image.

    If anybody wishes to continue this discussion, you’ll find me on twitter @AlmosJustice.

    Comment by AlmosJustice on April 15, 2012 at 11:03 pm
  4. Only Simon can wind me up enough to comment….

    Tesco do this Simon:

    a) Open store
    b) Sell cheaper than other shops
    c) Wait for all the other local shops to go bust
    d) Once monopoly is ensured – Increase prices to above what they ever were with the local stops
    e) Increase prices
    f) Increase prices again
    g) Cut staff to slightly less than the bare-minimum needed
    h) Increase prices
    i) Stop selling anything except Tesco’s own products
    j) Stop selling (e.g.) a block of cheese – only sell (e.g.) pre-sliced cheese to make more money
    k) Repeat on all products until there is no choice in the store and everyone is paying £5 for 8 slices of over-priced-tesco-own-brand-pre-sliced-cheese with nowhere else to shop except another Tesco in the neighbouring area – where the same thing is happening.

    Jobs Simon? 20 local stores will provide more jobs than Tesco’s – once Tesco gets to the ‘cut staff’ part of their oh-so-easy-to-spot-strategy.

    The local community is devastated at having only one place to shop, that is very very expensive, with far less people in employment than before Tesco arrived.


    Comment by CM on April 18, 2012 at 12:25 pm
  5. I quite agree with most of the above commentors apart from Simon who is not,and has obviously never been an independant business owner put out of business by rampant undercutting. Tesco’s and their counterparts have been cheerfully closing down independant businesses for years. For every job they create I would guess 2 or three are lost, not to mention their underhand tactics at aquiring planning permission and flouting planning laws. A source at Manchester City Council said they could not confirm if Tesco had aquired the site or not but there would be no problem with Tesco taking over the Kro site as there was no change to the plannedusage as it was a retail site already. We were a little surprised to say the least as Kro was a bar and cafe not a shop and so there is definitely a change of usage. A local Tesco manager when asked did not deny that Kro had been aquired for a new Tesco Metro and as the council are remaining tight lipped as to the planned usage I look forward to seeing how Tesco have got around all the obstacles.

    Comment by Jen on April 21, 2012 at 3:50 pm

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