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No prizes for coming third: The fight to be Britain’s second city

2011 May 17
by Paul Vallely

The key fact of which you need to be in possession is that Digby Jones – or Baron Jones of Birmingham to give him his due style – is an Aston Villa fan.  Only that could explain both the timing and the piquancy of his announcement.

Lord Jones – an ex-Business and Foreign Office minister, not to mention former Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry – lit some blue touchpaper yesterday by announcing that his home town is in “grave danger” of losing its title as the nation’s Second City to Manchester.

He was speaking to BBC Five Live on the morning that the first 100 of the radio station’s employees moved from London to Manchester at the start of an exodus which will see 5,000 BBC employees including BBC Breakfast, 5 Live, Match of the Day and all of BBC Sports, Religion, Children’s and Learning output – together with large chunks of light entertainment and current affairs – moving into MediaCityUK. The complex in Salford Quays will, by the end of 2011, be the biggest media hub in Europe.

But though the business magnate compared the two cities’ universities, transport systems, civic leaderships and workers’ skills levels – “Birmingham has almost the lowest skills base in the country” – it was clearly the football which most riled him.

At the weekend Manchester United, one of the richest and most successful football clubs in the world, broke the record for coming Top of the League with a 19th win. And Manchester City picked up the FA Cup. By contrast the fans of Birmingham’s largest football club, Aston Villa, have to look to go back 25 years for major success in winning European Cup. And Birmingham City FC are facing the indignity of relegation.

Debates as to which is Britain’s second city are guaranteed to get provincial blood boiling. Officially no such title exists, but everyone is keen to claim the crown because it helps to market a city, most particularly abroad.

In medieval time York was the obvious candidate and until the 18th century Norwich, Britain’s most populous city outside London, grown fat on the wool trade, took the title. Then, when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed in 1801, the laurel went to Dublin before passing in the form of “Second City of the British Empire” to Glasgow for much of the Victorian era.

There were always other pretenders, not least Liverpool. In the early 19th century an extraordinary 40 per cent of the entire world’s trade passed through its docks, much of it financed through the Atlantic Slave Trade though locals don’t much like to be reminded of that any more than, to return to football, they like to see the words Heysel and Hillsborough in the same sentence.

But as the Industrial Revolution proceeded apace Birmingham lay claim to the Second City title. It was not just at the geographical crossroads of the nation, it was its engineering heart in an age of manufacture. It is still Britain’s second biggest city, and the largest local authority in Europe, with a population of just under a million. That’s more than twice the size of Manchester, which indeed also ranked below Glasgow, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Edinburgh and Bristol at the 2001 census.

But size, as Washington DC reminds us, is not everything. (The population of the US capital and Manchester are similar in size). Though the capital of the Midlands has its own Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, in the glory days of Simon Rattle at any rate, has given Manchester’s Hallé and BBC Philharmonic something to think about, the cultural crown resides resolutely in the northern city.

Oasis, the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, Joy Division and the Charlatans pretty much trump Brum’s, Jamelia, Black Sabbath and UB40. Coronation Street has rightly outlived Crossroads. Manchester has hosted the Commonwealth Games. The third Manchester International Festival, which opens next month, has already built a reputation for exciting productions and cutting-edge arts events.

The University of Manchester is the biggest in the UK and has a global reputation with 25 Nobel Prize Winners where the University of Birmingham’s website lists just eight. Some of the most important scientific discoveries of the modern age have been made in Manchester. Not to mention the über-cool Professor Brian Cox.

Manchester has the busiest airport outside London with double Brum’s passengers and is an international hub to the Middle East and the States. MediaCityUK is set to expand to 15,000 jobs with 1,000 business when it is fully developed. As long ago as 2005 Management Today was saying that Manchester was gaining the edge in housing, property, retail, leisure and professional services. And last year Manchester city centre became second only to London for new office building take-up, with almost a million square foot occupied in the year.

Digby Jones, in a previous apostacy, in 2008, declared there was in Britain “no better place than the north west in terms of having a diverse manufacturing base, whether it’s engineering manufacturing at Rolls-Royce, automotive manufacturing at Bentley or pharmaceuticals manufacturing at AstraZeneca”. How it pained a Brummie to admit that, he conceded.

Of course the verdicts of individuals can be fickle. John Prescott, when deputy prime minister, declared Birmingham second city still when he visited the Bullring in 2003, only to deftly transfer the accolade to Manchester on a visit there two years later.

But opinion polls now consistently favour the more northerly city. In 2002 Mori found that Manchester had taken the lead, mostly strongly among 25-34 yr olds. By 2007 a clear majority of the population said, without being prompted with city names, that Manchester was in their view the nation’s second city – 48 per cent named it with just 40 per cent citing Birmingham.

Such views are, of course, not unanimous. Ask in Liverpool which is Britain’s second city and you will still probably get the answer London.

In the metropolis, by contrast, such questioning would not raise the temperature a millidegree. London, with its 7.6 million population and its political, economic and cultural dominance, so hugely overshadows everywhere else in the UK that arguments about a Second City feel like a playground squabble.

Except when it comes to football, of course. On that Manchester, with the ineluctable momentum of United’s tradition and the bonanza billions of City’s oil-sheik owner, looks determined, for the immediate future at any rate, to remain second to none.

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