Hope for the North

Posted on 13 August 2008 in Life, London (4 comments)

The story today that a think tank believes some Northern cities are beyond revival and that those living there should move to the South East is one that fills me with some interesting conflicting emotions.

Now I live in London and know the South East to be a madly crowded, expensive place, and that really the UK needs to stop crowding in this area.

But I also was one of those people who came from the North to London - doing exactly what that think tank suggests.

It's nearly nine years since I arrived, fresh faced in London, purchasing my first weekly travelcard from Euston Underground station. I came here after utterly failing to find any work building websites in the North West - what few jobs there were were very low paid, and rare to find on the jobs websites and mailing lists.

Every now and then I get spammed by a Manchester recruitment agent who has completely failed to remove me from their books like asked, and receive job specs for the kind of work I was then looking for. Even for experienced developer jobs, the going rates I've been sent were often about half what someone could earn in London. What's also noticeable is how few jobs come through.

Whilst there are limited employment opportunities in certain areas, there will be people who leave - either by choice or necessity. Indeed, one of the reasons I continue to be reluctant to join the BBC exodus to Salford is a real fear that I'd be trapped in the BBC for the rest of my life because it will be difficult to find work elsewhere.

Manchester is a big place, but my own research hasn't exactly persuaded me its overflowing with employment opportunities in the internet area (it's certainly not going to be for interactive TV - that really is far too niche!). I could be wrong of course, but you can only go by what you see - and a scour of job sites for Manchester jobs in my field haven't been particularly fruitful.

Okay, I work in one area of business which is quite focused on London. Unfortunately lots of industries are focused on London. And whilst certain industries are focused on one area you'll get people congregating there, whether its internet, or financial or whatever.

And whilst that congregation of industry remains, so does the congregation of people - and lo the South East keeps getting bigger and bigger to the detriment of the rest of the country.

Can you solve it? To move people, you need a critical mass of employers in a specific industry for it to happen. It's all very well moving to a location for one job, but uprooting your life every time you want to change employer is not a particularly practical option if you have a partner (and hey, maybe kids). And why would any employer want to try and start creating a new critical mass.

That's the charge no doubt of the BBC's move to Salford, but will it actually boost the software industry in Manchester enough to stop people going down South? Can it ever actually do that? And similarly, would one major financial institution moving away from the City of London, and setting up camp in Sheffield, suddenly see Sheffield become a new rival financial capital?

Is there actually a solution to either of these problems - a boost to the North, and a shrink in the South?

Personally I think there is, and it was one I heard some time ago from Plaid Cymru MP, Adam Price.

His suggestion was to move Parliament out of London. Lock, stock and barrell. Empty Whitehall, build new buildings - the lot. Split the financial and political capitals of this country. The financial capital won't move - why should it? But the political capital could be moved.

Where to put it? Actually his suggestion wasn't Wales as some might cynically think. He suggested making Liverpool the political capital of the UK - the logic being that it has the space, and could do with the boost.

The new Out-of-London political capital would have huge numbers of employees, and have a critical mass of jobs for people to move around in - civil servants would have similar options to move around as they do in Whitehall now. And anyone wanting to become a civil servant (and many people do leave university with that ambition) just need to head to a different city.

At the same time, a whole host of political related industries also relocate - lobbying, some elements of the media - and would have huge advantages to the whole of the surrounding area.

True it would be expensive, but the rewards would be absolutely huge. London and the South East would get more space, whilst the rest of the nation would have less cause to worry about everything being London centric, and power would be more evenly distributed.

Which is why it's such a shame that think tank Policy Exchange came to the conclusion they did. There are always ways. There's always hope. It just needs some imagination...

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Kirk said:

That was the most stupid Think Tank report ever. Idiots.

Posted on 13 August 2008 at 9:19 PM

almost witty said:

I spent a year working in Manchester on web content - I was theoretically managing umpteen people and umpteen websites for a salary that most people in London would snort at. I then got a job with less responsibility in London, for a 33% payrise.

Posted on 20 August 2008 at 1:26 PM

JD said:

Its a good job that cities are not built on a single business sector. Why should Manchester be built on interactive TV?

Manchester and the North-West generally is focussed on Science and Technology, with many other sectors growing massively.

Have you been to Manchester recently? Its an amazing culturally diverse city, with an equally amazing history.

Not all of us who describe ourself as Mancunians actually left Manchester, or took the BBC's "Learn Mancunian in ten minutes" - www.bbc.co.uk/manchester/content/articles/2005/01/11/learn_mancunian_voices_feature.shtml

I lived in London for 3 years, it was nice for a time. But the grey skies of Manchester called me home. Maybe I just like friendly people and not to be bumped about like a pinball in the arcade game of London transport system.

I know this city is not dead, as God has promised this city to his people to demonstrate his Glory to the world.

Posted on 28 August 2008 at 10:39 AM

Andrew Bowden said:

No reason why Manchester couldn't be built on interactive TV. If it had started there anyway. Unfortunately it started in London and is too small an industry to move wholesale. The BBC moving up there won't move the other independent companies from London and the South East - the BBC is not a big enough purchaser of external interactive TV spend to make it worth their while moving up. Indeed I heard of one company which used to be based in Liverpool, and ended up moving its entire operation to London in order to get business. The notion that, with the power of the internet, you can work anywhere is, unfortunately not the reality.

As it happens, I have been to Manchester recently. I don't go up too much, but I do visit and there's elements I love. I'm proud to be from the North West. But frankly the beer is better in London, I don't need a car, and I can't think of a single walk around central Manchester that makes me breathe in, put a big grin on my face and go "Wow! What a great place to be!" which is a sharp contrast to the way walking along the South Bank in London makes me feel (or for that mater, along the Seine in Paris, or along the banks of the Wear in Durham.)

Whilst I think of it, Manchester has one serious crime. It's called Urbis. A museum about city life. In a city. Including a simulator of what it's like to be on a crowded tram. I mean... If I want to know what it's like on a crowded tram, I can just pop outside and get on a tram.

I note admission to Urbis is now free (it certainly wasn't when I went) and even that is too much money. The only way they'll ever get me in there again is to pay me. Urbis frankly drags down the culture of the city in a way that is almost impossible to imagine!

Posted on 28 August 2008 at 11:05 AM

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