ParkStarter is an initiative to reclaim poorly used urban spaces in Manchester. Campaigning for more parks and green spaces - fewer car-parks or grey spaces.

Minded to refuse

Last month, along with supporters of Parkstarter, I went before Manchester City Council’s planning committee to object to the proposed use of the Dobbins site as as car park. Here is (roughly) what I said:

The story so far

The Dobbins building caught fire on April 11th 2013. By May 21st, 6 weeks later the steel framed building had been demolished, buried in on itself, the surface compacted and mounds of black MOT compacted granular fill had been delivered. Parking signs and meters were installed and a few days later it was open for business. It is now almost 8 moths since the opening of the car park.

As you no doubt already know we have an alternative vision - that of developing the site into a small park.

Sustainable development

The report prepared by the planning department makes reference to the “National Planning Policy Framework” in its arguments for approval of the change of use. However I think it is worth reminding the committee that the framework is not talking about any-old development. It is talking about sustainable development.

I’d like to quote from it again:

  • “Sustainable means ensuring that better lives for ourselves don’t mean worse lives for future generations.”
  • “Development means growth.”
  • “Sustainable development is about change for the better.”
  • Our historic environment – buildings, landscapes, towns and villages – can better be cherished if their spirit of place thrives, rather than withers.

It goes on to say that there are three, mutually dependent, dimensions to sustainable development: economic, social, and environmental. Let us look at the proposal as it stands in terms of each of these three themes and see if they hold up.


The direct benefits are to the operator and the landowner. Sure it’s better than an empty site. There are are doubtless some minor knock-on benefits to some of the local businesses from increased footfall.

The economic effects of a park would be uplift to property values. Provide a venue for events, markets and retail activities. Attract inward investment in the surrounding properties and businesses, creating jobs.


The car park represents a mild convenience for car users - it’s a more visible place to park than the adequate multi-storey facilities on Tib St, the Arndale Centre and Shudehill. Has no benefits to pedestrians. It accidentally provides bike parking.

Another design problem is one of access to the site - there is inadequate one-way signage and very narrow maze of streets. The plans specifically say that no changes are made to access of the site, pedestrian or vehicular.

Crime and security considerations are not well handled. There has been no additional lighting provided and the dark and puddly site. The site attracts drug dealing, litter including medical waste, car crime, other anti-social behaviour.

A park would improve community cohesion - reduced crime, improved public health, educational outcomes. A focal point, a place to play, a place to socialise, to have lunch, a place to sit and think.


Creating additional car parking capacity is in direct opposition to the council’s own Transport Policy Objectives Core Strategy of encouraging modal shift away from cars. The claims that this forms part of a “balanced” transport strategy seem weak.

Increasing the number of carparking spaces will encourage more people to travel by car. Build it and they will come… 
Air Quality Increasing car traffic will increase air pollution
The surface consists of somewhat compacted rubble and a coating of “MOT compacted granular fill” which according to your own Head of Neighbourhood Services is not a recommended surface finish for a car park. Puddly, uneven. The Crime Impact Statement also had things to say in that the surface should be solid tarmac and not be a source of potential projectiles.

Ironically, from a groundwater perspective it is probably a better surface than some in that it is porous, not explicitly connected to the drainage system and therefore is slightly better than hard run-off from an impermeable.

There has been no investigation of what may lie underneath the site.


Is this proposal ensuring the vitality of town centres? Could this proposal be considered well designed? I don’t think so.

Local authorities have the power to reject retrospective planning applications for car parking when they are contrary to Transport and Environmental policies and I urge the committee to make use of this power.

By granting this application the council is putting its stamp of approval on another zombie development which is not sustainable, does not meet the objectives of the city, its people, its commuters, its children and its environment.

We have an alternative vision, one which would meet all of these objectives in a sustainable way - in short the site should become a park.

The committee voted that they are "minded to refuse" the application, principally on environmental grounds. This was a huge victory - however the wheels of local government turn in their own peculiar ways and there is now to be a second hearing today.

The planning department (civil servants, as distinct from the committee of elected councillors) has unfortunately again recommended that the change of use be approved on a temporary basis. So now we believe it is time to put a strong case for converting the site into a park and sincerely hope  that the committee will follow through and formally reject the application.

Beware of the leopard

The Dobbins Site is to go before Manchester City Council’s Planning and Highways Committee this Thursday (16th January). Listed on the agenda as United Buildings (item 9) the recommendation from the council is to approve the change of use to a car park on a temporary basis.

The consultation period for the application was officially back in November, a full 6 months after the car park started operating - and while the council’s documents state that signs were posted and residents and businesses informed, there was little evidence of it on the ground. I was certainly not contacted, only learning of it when it was “too late”. The community engagement shown, or lack-thereof, feels worryingly reminiscent of the opening moments of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


Don’t panic! It’s never too late. Come along to the planning meeting if you can. If you can’t, email your councillors now to inform them of your objections.

The planning application can be found here.

Councillor Ollie Manco
Email: Tweet: @Olliemanco

Councillor Donna Ludford
Email: Tweet: @donnaludford

Councillor Mick Loughman

The Rise Of The "Zombie" Car Park »

David Blake in Manchester Confidential on the zombies eating our spaces:

Easterby-Smith’s utopian view for Manchester is admirable, but romantic. Yes we’d all love a city full of green, airy, revitalizing spaces. A Disney city with birds whistling from our shoulders, a city where everyone would travel canal side by bicycle, scarves billowing in the wind, stopping on the corner to read Keats and sip at macchiatos. Of course every society needs dreamers, so its good on Knowles and Easterby-Smith for trying, we need people like them. But they are facing an uphill struggle to substitute the grey for the green.

Petition submitted - 2066 signatories!

Last week we submitted the petition to a selection of local councillors including the head of planning and the new mayor. Here, for your enjoyment is the covering letter. Thanks to everyone who signed so-far!

Dear councillors,

Following a recent fire and subsequent demolition, the former Dobbins building at 76-80 Oldham Street in the Stephenson Square conservation area has been turned into a car park and opened for business. The car park is being operated by Simple Intelligent Parking Ltd (hereafter SIP). From correspondence with Manchester City Council, specifically Councillor Jim Battle and Anthony Mitchell we understand that the use of the site “does not have planning permission and is unauthorised”.

As local residents and businesses we strongly object to this unimaginative use of the site and the lack of due process and consultation. We also feel that the site presents a golden opportunity to create a sustainable green space which would bring numerous benefits to the area and the city at large. See our website for more details of the campaign.

We have gathered over 2000 signatures on a petition, the wording of which is as follows:

The Dobbins site at the top of Oldham St is being turned into a car park without planning permission. We think that this should be stopped immediately, because another ugly car park will do nothing for the city centre. We think that the site should be made into a green space with grass and trees. This will help make a better environment in the city centre, which does not have enough green spaces.

Total petition responses as of 19th June 2013

  • Paper: 1182
  • Online: 884
  • Total: 2066

Full copies of the completed petitions are attached. We anticipate further signatories in the coming weeks.

Having reviewed the Manchester City Council planning policies we would also like to draw your attention to the following points;

The car park does not meet the requirements for new developments within Conservation Areas.

The Guide to Development in Manchester Supplementary Planning Document and Planning Guidance (Adopted April 2007) states in section 1 ‘Creating a Sense of Place’ that ‘What a city looks and feels like is a crucial part of its identity and if people are to enjoy places they should be welcoming, inclusive, neighbourly, interesting and attractive […] We want Manchester’s buildings, neighbourhoods, streets and spaces to convey a sense of place where their identity, character and role are clear, relevant and special.’

In section 2, entitled ‘The City’s heritage is an asset’, the Guide to Development also mentions that developments in city Conservation Areas should ‘acknowledge the character of these areas and will only be acceptable if they preserve or enhance the special nature of these varied parts of the city’, and states that ‘The impact of car parking areas should be minimised’.

Section 11 of the Guide, ‘The City’s Character Areas’, recognises the Northern Quarter as one of several distinct and uniquely charactered and appearanced areas within the city centre, and states that future developments within these spaces ‘will be required to respect the particular character and flavour of each area’.

Additionally, information from the Manchester City Council website specifically pertaining to the Stevenson Square Conservation area states that ‘A number of sites have been left vacant where buildings have been demolished. These tend to be used as car parks in the short term, which can detract from the visual appeal of the area’, and suggests that ‘if gaps or spaces created by demolition […] were sensitively re-developed, the overall urban environment of the conservation area would be considerably improved’. (Source:

Planning Policy Guidance 15: Planning and the Historic Environment (1994) states that ‘planning decisions in respect of development proposed to be carried out in a Conservation Area must give a high priority to the objective of preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of the area. If any proposed development would conflict with that objective, there will be a strong presumption against the grant of planning permission’. This presumption may only be overridden, it says, ‘in exceptional cases […] in favour of development which is desirable on the ground of some other public interest’.

This site is on a main public transport route into the City Centre from North Manchester, and is adjacent to a bus stop used by most of these services. Oldham Street is also a popular pedestrian route into the city for local residents, and for visitors to the city staying at the Travelodge on Great Ancoats Street. Allowing this highly visible plot, previously occupied by a much-loved building with important links to Oldham Street’s history, to be used as a poor quality car park is certainly not in keeping with the Council’s overall vision for Manchester, and does nothing to enhance or preserve the nature of this unique area – in fact, it detracts from it.

The car park does not meet local or national standards for accessibility

As stated in The Guide to Development in Manchester Supplementary Planning Document and Planning Guidance (2007), the City Council’s vision is ‘for Manchester to be recognised as the most accessible City in Europe’. As such it expects developers to comply with the standards detailed in its ‘Design for Access 2’ Manual, which aim to ensure that all new development in the City is fully accessible for disabled people.

The Department for Transport ‘Inclusive Mobility’ document (2005) sets out best practice guidelines for provision of car parking for people with disabilities. It states that ‘Provision should be made for car parking spaces for disabled motorists […] wherever conventional parking spaces are provided.’, and that for car parks associated with shopping areas and places open to the general public’, 6% of the total capacity should be designated for visiting disabled motorists.

It also addresses ways in which a safe environment should be maintained for people with disabilities, including issues around access to ticket machines - ‘To allow wheelchair users to manouvre in front of the machine, there should be a clear space of 1850 x 2100mm’ – and safe access to and egress from parking spaces – ‘In open parking areas, designated parking spaces should be located on firm and level ground. The surface of designated parking spaces should be even and stable, with any variation of surface profile not exceeding ± 5mm’.

Standards for the design of parking bays and of pay and display machines are also given in this document, as well as guidance that in facilities such as this where Blue Badge holders have to pay for parking, signs should make this very clear and ideally disabled motorists should be informed of this before entering the car park.

The car park on Oldham Street does not have any designated bays for disabled motorists, and the existing bays are not of sufficient dimensions to be repurposed as such. The single parking ticket machine on the site sits within a parking bay which is often occupied, and thus is not accessible to wheelchair users or people with mobility problems. The surfacing used on the site is loose gravel, with small sections of raised tarmac used to delineate the parking bays – this is certainly not ‘firm and level ground’, and the variations in ground profile significantly exceed those required to meet accessibility standards.

Allowing development of another car park runs contrary to Manchester City Council’s commitment to developing healthier communities and encouraging the use of more sustainable forms of transport.

Manchester’s Unitary Development Plan Part 1 Policy T3.9 prioritises pedestrians, people with disabilities, cyclists, and public transport users above the needs of the car, and The Guide to Development in Manchester Supplementary Planning Document and Planning Guidance (2007) reiterates these priorities and stresses that ‘developers must take this into consideration in the location and design of any parking facilities’. The Guide also states that ‘parking is not just for cars. Sufficient, well located and secure cycle parking is essential to encourage people to cycle’.

Allowing development of yet another car park in the city centre encourages, rather than discourages, car use in an area which is well served by public transport. Additionally, the car park has no provision for disabled people, and no provision for cyclists.

Safe and secure car parking with provision for disabled motorists, CCTV, and security lighting is adequately provided within the local area, and another car park is not needed.

The NCP surface car park on Tib Street, and multistorey car parks on Church Street and Chatham Street offer 1505 spaces within five minutes walking distance of the Oldham Street site. Town Centre Car Parks provide a further 657 spaces between their Tariff Street, Dale Street, and Port Street sites, all of which are also within five minutes walk from Oldham Street. SIP car parks themselves have several contract and pay-and-display sites in the area including the former Lord Nelson pub off Great Ancoats Street.

By developing the site without planning permission, people from local communities have been denied a chance to have their say about what happens in the places they live and work.

Manchester Partnership’s Community Engagement Strategy 2011-2015 (2011) stresses Manchester City Council’s commitment to empowering local communities to be consulted on and engaged in proposals and decision-making processes which affect them, including developments or improvements to an area.

While we were out on the site speaking to people, overwhelmingly we found that people were opposed to the site being made into a car park but felt that they as individuals could do little about it as it was already there, and were glad we were giving them a forum to voice their opinions. This petition shows that there is a real strength of feeling within our community about how this site should be developed – by failing to seek planning permission for the car park, SIP have attempted to deny us our chance to express it.

In view of the overwhelming objection to this use of the site we would urge the council to enforce the immediate closure of the car park.

Yours sincerely,
Sam Easterby-Smith
Sarah Frances

on behalf of ParkStarter

A Good Day Was Had By All

[ParkStarter is an initiative to reclaim poorly used urban spaces, starting in Manchester. We are saddened that stalled development sites have become “zombie” car parks over recent years. We are upset that this is often done without appropriate planning permission. We think that more imaginative uses, such as creating new parks, are viable propositions. By way of context, see Why ParkStarter? and other earlier posts on the blog]

On June 2nd 2013 at 9:45 am we began building our first “prototype park” on the Dobbins site.


On the back of £200 raised online and a few further donations on the day we:

  • Bought 62 sqm of turf
  • Laid our turf over 6 car parking spaces in the Eastern corner of the site
  • Paid for our car parking spaces for 7 hours
  • Hired a van to remove the turf at the end of the day

And most importantly of all we joined with our community to sit on the grass and bask in the glorious (no joke, it was glorious) Manchester sunshine. We sat, we knitted, we read our books, we picnicked, we drank a few alcohol-free beers, we chatted and we dreamed.



Fears of a short-lived prototype quickly subsided as we realised the goodwill of the city seemed to be with us. Bus drivers and passengers waved to us. Busy people on their way to work stopped off to say they loved what we were doing and were sad they couldn’t join in. Passersby stopped to smile, to laugh, to take pictures, to ask what on earth was going on - and to talk to us. A lot of people had a lot of love for the old Dobbins building, and as we heard their many stories about its place in Manchester’s history and their different visions for the site’s future, it was striking that not a single person re-imagined it as a car park (not even a decent, non-dangerous, planning permissioned car park).

We gathered around 200 more signatures for the petition and many exciting offers of help and expertise from folk who stopped by to chat. It was truly wonderful. A huge thankyou to everyone who came, contributed, saw, sat, or viewed from afar.

Meanwhile on the other side of the car park…

Around 11am a member of staff from SiP was spotted talking worriedly into his mobile phone. Sam had a brief chat with him to explain what we were doing and that we would clean up after ourselves. Whilst a bit bemused he was quite nice about it but said that he was just doing his job and would have to talk to the boss.

A little later Haseeb Anwar, the managing director of SiP rocked up in his shiny blue Jeep. He asked us politely (through gritted teeth) to leave, and we explained politely that we had paid for our spaces and would be staying. He then asked us not-so-politely to leave, crying, “They’re for cars! Only cars!”, did a strange kind of dance around the car park with Loz, and called 999 to report to the police that some people were having a picnic in his car park. He seemed disappointed that they didn’t turn up and spent the rest of his afternoon sulking in the opposite corner of the site.

Around 3pm the first guy was sent back over to check our tickets. He was nice and smiled but declined to have his picture taken for the paper!

The cleanup

One of our major concerns was how we would be able to dispose of the turf once we had finished for the day. Particularly as we had promised to fully clean up after ourselves and didn’t want to be an environmental menace.

Luckily, Hulme Community Garden Centre stepped up and offered to look after our turf until such a time as we want to use it again. They were unsurprisingly very keen on the project, and we’re really looking forward to getting them involved further down the line.

But then we had a transport problem - how to get half a tonne of turf to the other side of town. Fortunately Josh is a member of a car club who operate a great service for urban dwellers who only occasionally need a vehicle. As he had other commitments we’d missed Josh during the day, but at 4:30pm he appeared with a big white van and we packed the turf off to its new home in Hulme.

At the end of the day we retired, slightly muddy to the ever supportive Castle Hotel to reflect on the day and toast our community who truly care for the place in which they live.

Prototype park!


Today Saturday 1 June 2013 a popup prototype park appeared on the Dobbins site! 

iMancs might want to get down there and enjoy it while it’s there, meet some friendly like-minded people and have a chat :)

A map of ‘suspended spaces’ in Manchester, needing an update to include the Dobbins site. From a University of Manchester’s citiesmcr blog post, which starts:
‘At first sight the city is all noise, movement and purpose – a place where people, vehicles and buildings jostle for space and every last inch of ground is accounted for by its function. But in this bustling urban environment inactive, suspended spaces are abundant. Manchester city centre is host to dozens of them – stalled construction sites, abandoned buildings and empty plots – and many can be found within walking distance of Piccadilly. This is a brief guide to a selected few.’

A map of ‘suspended spaces’ in Manchester, needing an update to include the Dobbins site. From a University of Manchester’s citiesmcr blog post, which starts:

At first sight the city is all noise, movement and purpose – a place where people, vehicles and buildings jostle for space and every last inch of ground is accounted for by its function. But in this bustling urban environment inactive, suspended spaces are abundant. Manchester city centre is host to dozens of them – stalled construction sites, abandoned buildings and empty plots – and many can be found within walking distance of Piccadilly. This is a brief guide to a selected few.’

We did a little data-crunching on the postcodes from the petition. We like data. This heat-map shows roughly where our signatories come from around the Greater Manchester area. We had a few from much further afield including Glasgow, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Hong Kong and Australia. (updated 4th June) Thanks to for the visualisations.

We, the people of Manchester and elsewhere

The last few days have been quite intense. Following (loosely) the flow-chart our next steps were to talk to people. Lots of people.


We put together a petition against the use of the Dobbins site as a car park and in favour of a green space instead. From two days on Oldham St we had an incredibly positive response from the people of Manchester and beyond. Over 800 signatures in two days, and the number is increasing. You can currently sign it in various Northern Quarter locations including; V Revolution, The Castle Hotel, North Tea Power, Fyg and 57 Thomas St. Or sign the petition online!

There were a few minor objections over security and safety of any proposed park scheme which we will definitely be taking into account as we move forward with creating a more fleshed-out-vision for the space.

News of the petition has hit the MEN today with the headline “Hundreds sign up against latest ‘zombie’ car park”


Yesterday Sam attended the Northern Quarter Business Forum organised by Cityco, which has led to interesting discussions with both local licensees, council representatives and the police. There was much talk of the needs of city centre venues for safe and manageable spaces for outdoor events as well as the greening of nearby Stephenson Square and the economic uplift that environmental improvements bring to the area. Slightly unexpectedly the operators of the nearby NCP multi-storey facility were present and very supportive of the project. Their line (aside from the obvious competitive element) are that they are not happy that companies such as SiP are bringing their industry into disrepute and providing sub-standard facilities.

Lastly we had a response back from Councillor Battle and the Planning department - which describes the site as “unauthorised”:

"We have visited the site and have recorded that works are taking place and that it is being used as a car park. This use does not have planning permission and is unauthorised. 

In accordance with our usual procedures, we will be informing the landowner/operator that the works and the use are unauthorised. One option for the owner/operator will be to submit a retrospective application. We will notify local residents of any such application and will consult  appropriate bodies. Any comments received will be taken into consideration when a decision is made”. 

This is an excellent start and we are so pleased at the responses from the community, overwhelmingly in favour of a park, NOT another zombie car park!

Tarmac being sparingly applied on Friday. And the parking signs and machine from Wednesday.