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Last modified: 20 February 2017

Imitating Manchester: the sincerest form of flattery.

England's great cities must learn from Manchester's examples. The difficult question is, which ones?
My take on this very interesting piece in the Independent. .

I heard the phrase “the provinces” for the first time when I was 25. A lady, originally from Bethnal Green and now retired to Croydon used it. I remember finding it odd, in the same way you might find it odd if I said the word luncheon in an otherwise normal conversation.

“Provincial” is not a word I heard growing up in Yorkshire. The word’s honest origins are now tainted by a suggestion that the provinces are a lesser part of the whole. Yorkshire, as you’ve probably been told, does not consider itself lesser than anywhere.

So I was similarly jarred to see the word in a widely shared piece from the Independent yesterday beneath a gorgeous picture of Canal Street in Manchester.


The scientist in me questioned some odd numbers and assertions straight away.

Does anyone seriously argue that swathes of power and money have been devolved to Manchester? More than elsewhere, yes, but the figures and powers are still tiny.

Is it useful to compare the population of Greater Manchester (2.7m) with just Birmingham (1.1m) and not the West Midlands (2.4m)? Maybe not, but if it provokes more of the West Midlands to follow Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, and Salford’s lead and team up with Birmingham then good.

Are faster trains between Manchester and Leeds as part of HS3 happening anywhere except on paper? Not that I’m aware, and it seems odd to mention them without reporting last year’s huge increase in train speed and ongoing electrification between Liverpool and Manchester.


But these are small gripes. Overall, the piece is an important reflection of a budding issue in the North of England. In Leeds, discontented mumbles of “bloody Manchester” are barely audible beneath the load moans about “fucking London” — but their volume is increasing. I heard them first in 2004, when the BBC announced that it would move many of its departments — though not its headquarters as the article suggests — to Manchester. Recent announcements of big projects in Manchester have caused even louder responses.

Mostly though, this new wave of negativity is because Manchester’s current plans are impositions from afar. Few in the North would truly resent a Manchester that were given the very same money but instead told that it could make plans for itself. In fact I am confident that most people across the North would support that, not least because they would be far more likely to be invited.

A decade ago my opinion on Manchester might have been unpopular. Now I find it largely accepted. It sits in the middle of our country, and in the middle of the great cities of Leeds, Sheffield, and Liverpool. It is the spiritual heart of a nation made great by free trade, industry, and a popular culture embraced by the whole world.

In that metropolis — one I considered myself part of in Leeds, and still do in Birmingham — I see our best hope of remaining a prosperous, welcoming, and happy nation. I have made my position clear on this, and met surprisingly limited resistance. I would urge the anonymous Whitehall voices reported in the article to do the same.


Finally, the article touches on how other cities might emulate Manchester’s success. This is vitally important. We must remember that it was by fighting the government that Manchester retained a truly international airport where other cities could not. It remains the only city willing to step out of line by questioning the hugely exaggerated national benefits of Heathrow expansion.

But Manchester has also succeeded by working with the centre. Its Labour leaders believe in both growth and redistribution, not only the latter. The city's regions have put aside regional squabbles and united to give Greater Manchester a strong voice. I eagerly await that voice being strengthened yet further with the legitimacy of being directly elected. Manchester has demanded and earned the right to be heard on a national scale and this has enabled it to extract the maximum amount of what little devolved power and money is currently on offer.


Manchester has always been eager to share its success and England's great cities must learn from its examples. The difficult question to answer now is, which ones?

That's the debate that I hear most loudly discussed in the North — and just a few jealous grumblings about Manchester's early success.

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