Although you may not believe it, through a glass door hidden in an anonymous 1970s office block in Manchester, above a barbers and a Greggs, is actually a base for secret agents.
Heron House is now home to signals intelligence agency GCHQ, and inside, hundreds of spies keep tabs on those who might wish to do the UK harm.
Sharing a unique insight into this clandestine building, the Manchester Evening New was among the first media to be invited to glimpse inside.
According to the MEN, GCHQ’s move to Manchester at the back end of 2019 ushered in a new era for spy chiefs. It signaled a change towards more openness and increased collaboration with universities and private industry as the intelligence community acknowledged the need to stay at the cutting edge of a new age of digital espionage.
The central location, on Albert Square opposite the scaffold-clad town hall, is symbolic of this shift in culture. The part of the building we’re allowed to see has the same security rating as most government buildings.
Security checks are still required to get in, but with its open plan design, glass walled meeting rooms, understated gray sofas and plywood paneling it could double up as a trendy Northern Quarter coffee shop. The space means the agency can host things like school visits, meetings and even yoga classes.
However, some old habits die hard. While a quick Google search will give you GCHQ’s Manchester address, there are no signs outside advertising their presence.
Inside Heron House the windows and walls have enhanced security measures for protection against a number of potential threats.
And while part of the building may be fairly open and accessible, two other floors are classified ‘top secret’. There spies – the actual figure is not disclosed, but we’re told they number in the hundreds – work on the same intelligence missions as their colleagues at GCHQ’s doughnut-shaped headquarters in Cheltenham.
These include defending the UK against potential cyber-attacks from China and Russia and digital surveillance of terrorists and organized crime. So why has the agency chosen Manchester as its base to, partially, come out of the shadows?
“The pace of technological change at the moment is so fast that the old ways of doing it just aren’t going to cut it anymore,” said Liz, GCHQ’s deputy director for Manchester, who declines to give her surname for security reasons.
“When the organization was thinking about where next and some of the challenges we face, Manchester seemed like a really good bet because you’ve got really strong universities, lots of tech start-ups and some of the really big tech firms.
“In Manchester we have been given a bit of license to experiment. We are able to work here with industry in a way that you just can’t elsewhere.
“And the opportunity of being here just opens us up. We’re right in the city center. This way we can be a little bit more friendly and invite people in.”
Liz wouldn’t be drawn on the exact nature of the work being done in Manchester, other than to say staff were ‘working on all the missions’ including ‘hostile states, terrorism and serious and organized crime’.
But in a rare public address last month Sir Jeremy Fleming, the head of the agency, gave an insight into the agency’s current priorities, when he spoke about the major risk posed by Chinese technology to the UK’s security and prosperity and told how Ukraine’s courageous action on the battlefield and in cyberspace’ was turning the tide in the war against Russia.
GCHQ already has branches in Scarborough, Bude in Cornwall and London. But its Manchester station gives it more opportunities to recruit from outside its traditional white, male, upper and middle-class demographic.
Lots of Cheltenham-based staff initially made the move to Manchester, but they’re being steadily joined by new starters from across the north. And as part of that move schools in areas of ‘untapped talent’ in all 10 boroughs in Greater Manchester have been invited in to spread awareness of the agency among communities that might not have even heard of it.
“There’s a bit of mystique around what we do, but this gives us a chance to demystify some of it,” said Liz. “We can’t really expect people to trust us and want to come and work here unless we give them a bit more.”
On Monday 60 kids from St Margaret’s primary school in Whalley Range paid a visit for a lesson in code breaking. It was part of the launch of the agency’s new book Puzzles for Spies, which includes hundreds of puzzles based on languages, engineering, codebreaking, analysis, maths, coding and cyber security skills.
For the launch GCHQ has teamed up with children’s mental health charity. Place2Be. The charity’s chief exec Catherine Roche said: “Problem-solving encourages creativity, ingenuity, and imagination – which are all vital skills for growing and thriving into adulthood. Helping children to solve problems for themselves encourages them to develop resilience in the face of adversity, and helps them to become more confident, independent and successful in their own right.”