Supporting The Fight For “Ancoats Dispensary”

The fight to save Ancoats Dispensary

Ardwick and Ancoats Dispensary, Old Mill Street, Manchester. Photograph: Joanne Moyes/Alamy

Loz Kaye joins a protest meeting at the threat to a listed monument to enlightened social policy, the home of the first hospital orthopedic department in the world

The meeting of ‘Fight 2 Save Ancoats Dispensary’ kicks into gear with everyone in a full room introducing themselves in turn. Last up we have Gillian:

I’m Gillian. I’m the campaign secretary. And I’m quite annoyed. This raises a smile; everyone here is more than annoyed. The room is filled with people of all ages and backgrounds who are very angry. Angry and passionate about preserving the Grade II listed building in East Manchester. Ardwick and Ancoats Dispensary, once a beautiful redbrick Gothic temple to public health but now facing demolition. Manchester city council’s planning and highways committee has signed what councillors believe will be the Dispensary’s death warrant.

In the three months since the campaign started action has snowballed, helped by local and national reporting as well as the goodwill and time of local residents turned activists. Opposition to the demolition has taken on a physical form. Every day volunteers stand vigil, hundreds of protest signatures have become thousands, pedestrians offer their support and cars honk their horns as they drive down Old Mill Street.

Let’s face it, there is plenty to be annoyed about. The Dispensary was bought by Urban Splash in 2001 as part of lofty plans to redevelop Ancoats as New Islington. This scheme was trumpeted as a bold initiative to transform the city and a model of consultation. Former residents don’t quite remember it that way. Urban Splash director Tom Bloxham said at the time:

We’ve got the skills… we’ve got the energy to make this deliver. Yet through all this, nothing progressed for the Dispensary. It was neglected in the heady years of the property bubble, then slated for demolition in the subsequent crash. It turns out that skills and energy aren’t enough, you need the money and the will too.

It seems that Urban Splash expected a heritage equivalent of the bank bailouts to deal with their neglect. By the time it became clear that this would fail to materialise, the damage had gone from bad to appalling. Even moves to maintain the Dispensary have hastened its decline: the removal of the roof has exposed the fabric of the building to the elements and the state of things is now being used as a justification for demolition.

Apparently “the roof and floors were removed to facilitate repairs.”.If this is repair, remind me never to get Tom Bloxham round to do DIY.

The story now is that everything is out of the control of the council and developer. Nothing can be done, as the damage is too far advanced; it would be far too expensive for Urban Splash. Of course this conveniently ignores the decade in which the owners failed to live up to their responsibilities while Manchester’s Labour council failed to use the powers available to force Urban Splash to act.

However, even in the face of the damage done, all is not lost. A significant funding gap needs to be closed, but the building is not beyond saving. Money is needed, but even more important is pressure and a will to save the place. The campaigners, for all their grassroots activism are not ignoring practicality; they are also getting legal advice, something that tends to concentrate minds on an issue.


Free schools such as Batley Grammar in West Yorkshire; will they last? Photograph: Christopher Thomond

What’s enraging them is that Urban Splash continue to press ahead with other schemes in the area as if nothing has happened. The firm is are part of the bid for New Islington Free School, which has now been accepted by the Department of Education. While an old hospital is left to fall, we are expected to believe that they can raise a school?

If that sounds a bit hypothetical, look at it like this; the financing to save the Dispensary’s fabric was supposed to be covered by the North West Development Agency, which fell victim to the change in government. Isn’t the free school programme just as vulnerable to new fads in Westminster?

The Dispensary campaign is about more than just the potential loss of something rare and beautiful, it is about how communities in much of the north of England have been treated. We’re all too acutely aware of how the cuts are biting, and how the promised regeneration has failed to change the prospects for so many. This building housed the first orthopedic department in the world, it housed the city’s first X-ray department. It is a monument to social advance, yet apparently the council and developers are prepared to dump it on the scrap heap. This seems to be becoming a regular feature of our society – just across the road, the NHS walk-in centre is now threatened with closure.

The Dispensary is the last remnant of a city that has been all but swept away; the vision of transforming the Cardroom estate that started this chain reaction simply hasn’t lived up to the hype. Back in 2007 it was said that the development was to by complete by 2012 and was to be “the most ambitious regeneration project in the world”.

We all want to see improvements to our city and our lives, but the Dispensary is a link with the past that is also a potent reminder that developer’s PR froth is just that. To lose the building would be a signal that no responsibility needs to be taken, that some people can just walk away. As one woman puts it bluntly in the meeting, “it was an experiment in social cleansing”.

Her words keep replaying in my mind as I walk home from the meeting. I pass the Dispensary on my way back. It’s still standing. With the passion in that room it may yet be with us for some time to come.


Loz Kaye

Loz Kaye is Pirate Party candidate for the Manchester Central by-election on 15 November.         Credit: Guardian Newspaper:- : Twitter:




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