There is an irony to old mills being converted into luxury flats; one that does not sit well with me. Mills and factories where people worked, and were often exploited, are now expensive apartments that the same class of people cannot afford a century on. This trend in housing is nationwide, but most noticeable in the Midlands and Northern industrial cities/towns where the brown bricks and skeletal chimneys are embedded into the landscape. Developers are keen to capitalise on the public’s attraction to the past, the historical value of these properties elevating interest, and thus demand.
This history stems from the industrial revolution. Innovations in the British textile industry saw factories and mills sprout up all over Britain, creating larger cities such as Manchester. Think Lowry’s smudges of people or Dickens’ stories of poverty stricken urchins. Industrialisation was bolstered by the exploitation of enslaved people in British colonies, and the poorly paid workers in their mills and factories.
Similarly, de-industrialisation hit the working class the hardest. British manufacturing started to plummet in the 1970s, with the interests of this industry being sacrificed for the financial industry under Thatcher. The result was factory and mine closures – known all too well for its devastating impact on the north of England.
This is a rather simplified summary, but the result of this was unemployment on the scale of the Great Depression. In Manchester alone, 400,000 jobs have been lost in the manufacturing sector over the past 100 years. Furthermore, the loss of community support networks that industry and unions provided was another devastating outcome of this pivot.
Fast forward to today, and these industrial ruins have new life as homes. On the one hand, transforming old mills and factories is better than them being demolished. It preserves their history, inviting questions about the unusual property and ensuring they’re not forgotten. Furthermore, a report by ‘Colliers International’ produced July 2015, details that the construction industry produces massive CO2 emissions. Repurposing old buildings for housing is better for the environment than creating new homes from scratch. It is also the aim of some developers to offer luxury living at an affordable price to people. However, are these promises fulfilled?
Take Manchester as an example. According to Rightmove, the average sale price of a flat last year was £189,305. However, when browsing for luxury mill conversions specifically, I noticed these properties are more expensive than this average. They start in the £200,000’s for one bedroom, increasing into the £300,000’s plus if you need more rooms. Rent prices per month are in the £1,000’s, for both one and two bedrooms. Most are attractive and spacious, therefore they are fairly priced in comparison to other properties around the country. So to an extent, this fulfils developers' claims of luxury at affordable prices.
However, this is only affordable if you have been saving, or have a well paid profession. Just because they are considered fairly priced for some, does not mean this kind of housing is affordable in general. For those in desperate need of housing immediately, or individuals/families on low incomes, these luxury apartments are not an option. When you take into account that homelessness has risen over the past five years or that one in three people do not have a safe or secure home, these prices seem out of touch with reality. A link between unaffordable housing and homelessness has been discovered, and with homelessness on the rise these prices are clearly a contributing factor to poverty in this country.
Old industrial buildings that are now luxury apartments are feeding into this issue. Evidence from the ‘Colliers report’ suggests historic buildings are more expensive than new builds. Obviously, they were places of work, so renovating them is a longer and costly task. The historic nature means it is more likely for things to go wrong, which developers blame for delays. It is no wonder they hike the sale prices up in order to make a profit!
Yet these issues do not deter developers. Industrial builds have a unique selling point and a market of high earners willing to invest in this history. By using this as a marketing technique they are also devaluing that history. People were injured, even died in these buildings, providing evidence of working class exploitation. This same class of people are once again being ignored, and are priced out of the areas that the labour of their ancestors established. Luxury flats are not an option for low earners. They’re instead left to the mercy of dodgy landlords, where mould is expected and health is likely compromised – all for the luxury of paying over half their wage just for a roof over their head.
Whilst it is good to see old mills and factories survive as housing, they should be more affordable, and more respectful to the history of those that worked – or died – in them. Converted apartments are yet another example of the worsening housing crisis in Britain. Their history is their selling point but also exposes their problems. Some can afford to lavish themselves in the aesthetic of working class history, whilst others are living in its realities. At the moment, converted mills symbolise that the UK is ignorant of its ever widening class divide.