People in property spend a lot of time talking about what makes cities more competitive, better able to win the major inward investments from organisations that could, in this global age, put their offices pretty much wherever they like. And in the UK, a lot of the talk is about ‘why does Manchester do so well?’
The size and ambition of the city’s municipally-owned airport, along with that of its universities is often cited, and rightly so. But often overlooked is the importance of the satellite towns. Most of them linked loosely by the orbital M60 motorway, each of the ten Greater Manchester boroughs play a vital role. Manchester is the attack brand, but its economic weight really comes from the fact that it goes into battle with a combined force that its rival cities rarely can.
To some extent this is an accident of history and the economic development of urban areas since the industrial revolution – but Manchester has capitalised on it well and continues to push home its advantage. The Merseyside boroughs rarely look as united. In Yorkshire, although there is a Leeds City Region and a Sheffield City Region (latter of which has a devolution deal in place), the demarcation isn’t as clear and there often seems to be a suspicion among the smaller towns that investment will be sucked into their larger counterparts. From the outside, it never feels like everybody’s pulling in the same direction, being prepared to be part of a bigger story.
Places like Bradford, York and the rest are proud places that don’t easily fall into line behind Leeds. None of this is to say that the likes of Bolton and Oldham aren’t proud of their identities – but the strong civic leadership of Manchester (another reason for its inward investment successes – businesses like to see certainty and clarity of direction from the top) tends to carry the day. ‘Come with us’ is the message and by and large it serves the towns well.
What the ten boroughs each give the city story is a ready supply of labour at all levels of the pay-scale, along with options and answers to the ups and downs of the housing markets and in the supply of business space. There’s a bit of leakage in between the boroughs – and none of them like losing employers and rate-payers to the neighbours – but generally a business will find the answer it needs somewhere close by and the greater good is served.
Over recent years, each of the ten centres has progressed at its own rate, some getting their town centre in line before others. Oldham has suffered from under-investment in its town centre, but is now getting there, with an excellent redevelopment of the old town hall and a new M&S-anchored retail pitch. In Trafford, Altrincham has addressed its town centre woes – more than any other town, it was severely hit by the opening of the Trafford Centre – with an artisan market that has wowed locals and become a destination in its own right.
The variety of the towns all serves to make Manchester a more interesting place, as much as anything. For newcomers to the area, there’s so much to be explored by jumping on a train or tram – markets, theatres, restaurants, parks, pubs and the rest. Every one of the ten boroughs is a huge part of the Manchester story.