Not so grim up north

By Mike Emmerich (with thanks to Helen Pidd

This week's Economist newspaper carries an article on the BBC's move to Manchester under the heading "Not So Grim Up North" for which I supplied a couple of quotes. Judging from the messages I've had and (by my standards) significant feedback on Twitter, one quote in particular seems to have struck a chord, namely that the BBC is a handful of moves away from retrenching from the significant relocation it made in Salford Quays.

I was not misquoted and what I said was not taken out of context but nonetheless I think the issues are a lot more complex than a short article can really explain. What was in my mind when I gave that quote was recent precedent. Mancunians of a certain age will remember the fanfare when the British Council moved some of its headquarter functions to central Manchester only to find that they were the parts of the operation that were massively downsized by London HQ shortly thereafter. The rather lovely building in a landscaped garden built for them (what is now One First Street) was duly left vacant and all that remains is a small team in a cubbyhole somewhere on Whitworth Street. More recently, as I speculated in a Guardian article a couple of weeks before the spending review, government has something of a habit of devolving budgets to places like Manchester and then cutting them. It was therefore no surprise whatsoever when the Government decided shortly after the spending review to take a scalpel to business support, cutting the Manufacturing Advice Service and business growth grants, shortly after it had devolved responsibility for them to several combined authorities. Strangely, it didn't exactly shout it from the treetops either.

I don't claim any great insight into the way the BBC is run in the north, but still think that the way the move was managed did not embed the Corporation as firmly in the local economy as should have been the case from the outset (for that I squarely blame the North West Regional Development Agency). Several years of experience of working in Manchester have shown the BBC that there is much to be gained from doing so and links seem to be strengthening well. It was a sensible move and the market is working, creating jobs and growth to the benefit the BBC and the North alike: the city feels like it has hit critical mass. But the BBC is under massive pressure from a Government that is probably less supportive of it than any in recent memory.

In the light of the feedback, I did a bit of further digging, talking with the Guardian’s northern editor, Helen Pidd, whose insights are interesting. "I still think Media City's presence continues to be enormously important not just for Greater Manchester but also as a reminder to the rest of the media that most of the people in the UK do not live in London or its environs. If the BBC hadn't moved I don't think that the Guardian would be reinvesting in journalism in the north of England - our new editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, has recently hired three reporters to join me in a revamped Manchester 'hub'.

"That said, among journalists in particular at Media City, there is the feeling that the "real" decisions are all taken in London and that if they want to progress in their career at the BBC they move south, not north. There was some dismay with the departure last year of Peter Salmon, who oversaw the move to Salford in his job as Head of BBC North. He was a real champion for Media City and has not really been replaced - instead Helen Boaden has been given the gig as an adjunct to her main day job as director of BBC Radio. Does Boaden really have the time or will to continue to fight for the north, and to insist that more major shows are based out of Salford?"

A good and open question. On most accounts I have heard, Helen Pidd’s included, the BBC's move was and is very successful but the grand vision of the BBC as a sort of pre-Osborne proto-Northern Powerhouse still hangs in the balance. That was my point.

My point about London Docklands and its milieu also needs unpicking a bit. As I said in the article, my memories of London Docklands in the 1980s and 90s are of a place that was pretty awful. I don't think anything about Salford Quays has ever been bad on that scale. From its very earliest conception, the rejuvenation of Manchester Docks has been democratic, with the Lowry Centre and the artist’s works at the centre of a celebration of surely one of the most working-class forms of high art this country has ever produced. The Lowry sits on the opposite bank of the Manchester Ship Canal to the Imperial War Museum North in its stunning building designed by Daniel Libeskind and with the UK’s biggest club football stadium, Old Trafford, immediately beyond. The context to Media City could hardly be different from the barren wasteland greeting the banks who arrived in the London Docklands in the 1980s. It never was as grim as Docklands and it is already a more human place and one designed for normal people to enter and enjoy. In that respect Media City is the latest in a long line of visitor attractions with the studios, like the museums, theatres and football club, being essentially open and public and in stark contrast to the buildings of London Docklands. But it was a gamble. Underlying the Economist article was the debate not just about the move north but about the choice of Media City. 

Debate raged in Manchester about whether the BBC should have gone to Manchester city centre. For my money that would have been the safer bet and might have produced a stronger and more synergistic set of connections between the Corporation and the rest of the creative community in the north. It might have encouraged more senior people to come up too. Here I speak to my own, not wholly happy experience, of swapping my job working above the door of 10 Downing Street to move to Manchester, working in the now thankfully demolished Maths tower at the University of Manchester. Since then my advice to anyone who has asked is that if we are to attempt to persuade people who can choose to work anywhere to come to the north, we have to put them where they are going to feel the most at home, and I still think in the here and now that this would have been more true of the city centre of Manchester than Salford Quays. That said, Salford Quays is a functioning part of the city centre, the BBC wanted scale that would be hard to find in a more central location, it is early days and the BBC is one of the few institutions in Britain with the power and brand identity to shift perceptions significantly. I don't think the BBC made bad a decision, it's just one that is too soon to judge. The key thing is that neither the city centre of Manchester, Salford Quays or a great many other places around here are grim and in that respect the article was spot on.