"Things are really happening here" - Why Manchester is Britain's best city for business

Metro mayor Andy Burnham tells Bill Borrows about his plans to make Manchester the UK's top digital city by 2030.

by Bill Borrows
Last Updated: 25 Jun 2019

It is almost always reassuring to learn that our directly elected political officials are extremely busy and, to no great surprise, Andy Burnham is running late. It is a Friday afternoon and the mayor of Greater Manchester has just been chairing the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) at neo-classical, Grade II-listed Trafford Town Hall, just across the road from the home of Lancashire County Cricket Club. "Apologies," he says, taking a seat and unbuttoning his jacket. "The meeting overran but only in a good way. Let’s talk Manchester."

There is a commendable air of brisk efficiency about Burnham. The 49-year-old Merseysider has already been chief secretary to the Treasury in Gordon Brown’s first cabinet and also secretary of state for culture, media and sport and then health. He stepped down as shadow home secretary in 2016 to become the inaugural "Metro Mayor" of the 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester: Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Wigan and the cities of Manchester and Salford. "Politics has been too London-centric for too long," he said at the time of his election in May 2017. "Greater Manchester is going to take control."

He meant of its own affairs but the bigger picture is not something Manchester has ever had a problem embracing. With a legitimate claim to being the world’s first industrial city, it was the birthplace of both the trade union and suffragette movements (not to mention British vegetarianism, thanks to the preachings of the inappropriately named Reverend William Cowherd). The city boasts a statue of philosopher and communist Friedrich Engels, who lived there for several years, but also lends its name to a school of economic thought expounding the kind of free trade capitalism embraced by Margaret Thatcher. This is what former prime minister Benjamin Disraeli meant when he said: "What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow."

"I would say it is a pragmatic city," says Burnham. "I think it has always been a bit like that. It has principles in terms of what the place believes in, but it is pragmatic. We will sit down with any government in order to further the cause of the people here – and work with any company – but obviously be clear about what’s right and what’s not. Manchester is a welcoming, open, stable place to do business and, for all those reasons, it is probably an easier place for people to do business. We believe in forming long-term relationships – if people commit to here then we commit to them." That’s just one of the reasons why the city has taken the top spot in Management Today’s inaugural ranking of the 21 best towns and cities for business outside of the nation’s capital.

In terms of geographic location, the city is at the heart of both the United Kingdom and the much-vaunted Northern Powerhouse – an initiative to boost economic growth outside London and the South East pushed forward by former chancellor George Osborne. Manchester has 7.2 million people within a one-hour commute and a student body of 100,000 but, beyond the top-line data, the city’s existing connectivity (the airport reaches more than 200 destinations worldwide) and low operating costs (up to 40 per cent cheaper than in London), mean it is already a base for huge international organisations such as Amazon, Jaguar Land Rover, Siemens, GCHQ and Microsoft.

Complacency, however, is not welcome here. Burnham feels that, although you still hear the phrase Northern Powerhouse used, it does not have enough substance behind it. "The idea of clustering cities across a region is certainly one that had a lot of resonance in China, where that is their approach to economic development, and I think we need to get back to that," he says.

"Manchester is obviously important in its own right but it is also the crossroads of the North." To that end, HighSpeed2 (HS2) and the Northern Powerhouse Rail project aim to join the major cities of the North to each other and the capital, with Manchester the key player. With funding and decisions coming from central government, delays have been inevitable and frustrating but, typically, the city is not prepared to wait.

"[Both those transport schemes] are pretty important, but they won’t solve the North’s transport needs and I am very much focused right now on what is going to happen here in the next 10 years," says Burnham. "What is the transport investment plan to put right what’s gone wrong in terms of the infrastructure?"

Burnham is referring to the legacy of under-investment exposed last year when timetable changes caused chaos for thousands of Greater Manchester rail passengers, a situation that, according to regulator the Office of Rail and Road, "was not foreseen by any party until after it had begun".

"That is what I am working on," says Burnham. "In the meeting I have just been to today – the one that overran but only in a good way – we have just signed off something that effectively proposes the creation of Greater Manchester Rail, something like a coherent London-style system with an Oyster card and all the rest of it."

The GMCA, the conglomerate of local authorities overseen by Burnham, emerged as a response to the 2008 financial crisis. An attempt to pool resources, it came into being on 1 April 2011 with devolved powers comparable to those of the Greater London Authority – covering public transport, skills, housing, regeneration, waste management, carbon neutrality and planning permission – pending approval from the 10 councils. It is this devolution, although 20 years behind the home countries and London, that Burnham argues is the key to the future of the city (not to mention, as he told the Financial Times, the best answer to Brexit) and indeed all the regions of the North.

Earlier this month, Power Up the North, a collaboration between dozens of politicians, business leaders and newspapers (including the Manchester Evening News, Sheffield Star and the Newcastle Journal) called for "a fundamental shift" in decision-making out of London to devolve more power and self-determination to people in the North. Burnham, supporting the initiative, cited the example of Manchester as a foundation upon which to build.

It is, he points out, the leading regional city in the UK for attracting foreign direct investment and the key ingredients for its continued success, he argues, are already in place. "Aside from the history and the location, gross value added of £62.8bn, world-class universities, global-brand football clubs and musicians that fly the flag for Manchester around the world, the most important thing we have are the people," says Burnham.

"I was in Manchester at the time of the IRA bomb during Euro 96 [the largest device to be detonated in the UK since the Second World War]. I was going to the Russia-Germany game and I remember thinking, ‘Will it go ahead?’ But it did. There were road closures and bomb squads but the game went on. It was a bit like, ‘Well that just happened, we won’t be broken, we will not be beaten.’ The resilience was there and palpable straight away and it brought people together."

That same resilience was in evidence in May 2017, when a suicide bomber detonated a homemade device at the Manchester Arena following an Ariana Grande concert, killing 22 people. Less than four months later, the venue reopened with the We Are Manchester benefit concert.

"We are still recovering from that and doing everything we can to support the families and everybody affected by it, but I think it did bring across to the world the values of the place," says Burnham. "A place is defined by its people and I defy anyone to go anywhere in the world and find warmer, more decent, more generous people. They are people who decisively reject the hate we see around the world these days, the division – this is a place that absolutely faces that down."

It is, perhaps, fitting that the symbol of Manchester, the worker bee, for so long synonymous with the city’s pre-eminence at the time of the industrial revolution and a nod to the people who drove it, was adopted as a defiant symbol of hope for a new generation, not just across the city but across the Greater Manchester region.

Big ambitions

The hope extends to the local economy. "We have just agreed the Greater Manchester Local Industrial Strategy with the government. It’s not a wish list or PR, it is a proper look at where we can be world class in the future," says Burnham. The review highlights four areas (see page 58 for more details): health innovation; advanced manufacturing of materials (graphene, for example: "Where we lead the world"); digital ("In all its guises, including cybersecurity and fintech") and zero carbon.

Beyond those areas of specialisation, and never knowingly undersold, Manchester characteristically aims to be the UK’s leading digital city by 2030 and, on a platform of inclusive growth and digital innovation, a global top 20 city five years later. "It’s a realistic ambition," explains Burnham.

"It has been part of my strategy to set new ambitions on digital and green. Overtaking London as the UK’s leading digital city will put us in the top five in Europe, but we are also aiming to achieve carbon neutrality in Greater Manchester by 2038, 12 years sooner than the rest of the UK.

The rationale behind [digitalisation and decarbonisation] is that those are the two big forces of the 21st century economy, so if you get ahead of the game on both, then you are in a very strong position to export the kind of knowledge and the skills that come with that."

Rightly or wrongly, London has become synonymous with big business but, as Manchester and the other winners in our rankings show, there is plenty of life outside of the capital – and plenty of opportunity for British businesses.

"I think there is a sense at the moment that things are really happening here. There are currently, for example, more cranes across the skyline than in any US city. We have the most advanced devolution deal of anywhere in the country so we have more power to do more for ourselves and, in what can appear to be a period of national gloom or national uncertainty, I think Greater Manchester does have a sense of it powering on despite it all," says Burnham.

"We are a stable place, with a pro-business culture, so I hope the message is getting through that this is a good place to come. It is a place where things are happening, where there is positive energy flying around."

Portrait copyright: Julian Dodd

Main image credit: Zuzanna Neziri/Flickr (creative commons)

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