“The Manchester miracle”: how did a city in decline become the poster child for urban regeneration?

The Piccadilly area of central Manchester in 1887. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

In an April 2015, a poll commissioned by the Manchester Evening News found that 72 per cent of respondents were in favour of Manchester seceding from the United Kingdom.

Like the post-Brexit petition for London independence, perhaps the poll shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But it does illustrate the independent Mancunian spirit – a spirit that’s also seen its civic leaders reshaping the city’s political institutions and economic strategies since its post-industrial nadir in the 1980s.

Today, Greater Manchester is moving towards electing its first metro mayor next year. Could it really go beyond that – to independence?

Post-industrial decline

Manchester was the first of western Europe’s industrial boomtowns – but the city underwent a catastrophic process of deindustrialisation following the Second World War. Between 1971 and 1981, Manchester lost almost 50,000 full-time jobs and 17.5 per cent of its population.

Whole areas were described as “emptied”, characterised by social exclusion, crime and deteriorating living conditions: landscapes soundtracked by Joy Division. The world’s first industrial city seemed to be in terminal decline by the 1980s. A huge economic disparity subsequently opened up between London and declining industrial cities like Manchester. Per capita GDP in London remains double that of northern English regions.

Manchester's cotton mills in 1936. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

This uneven development was driven by the forces of globalisation, and facilitated by the British state (a fact which helps to explain Manchester’s recent strive for greater autonomy). The disparity between the London and the north opened up dramatically from the late-1970s, when governments ceased trying to spread economic growth more widely among cities.

The most significant policy decision was the so-called “Big Bang” of 1986: the deregulation of London’s financial markets, enabling its emergence as the world’s preeminent financial centre. The proximity of the thriving financial centre to Britain’s existing political centre has encouraged successive governments – whether Conservative or Labour – to further enhance the capital’s dominance.


Manchester’s economic miracle

Manchester’s city leaders have since employed new economic strategies to re-define its role and improve its position in the global market. The turnaround witnessed in recent years has been so successful that it’s sometimes termed the “Manchester miracle”.

To prosper in the competitive global economy, cities need to harness their “monopolies of place” – those distinctive qualities granted by location and local assets that cannot be easily imitated elsewhere.

Improving regional and international connectivity via transport infrastructure upgrades is one economic strategy being employed to exploit Manchester’s position within the northern English conurbation, and at the tip of the European “blue banana”. Specific changes include the Northern Hub, a project to improve the rail connections between Manchester and other cities in the north, and the development of its airport’s international flight connections.

The recent announcement of direct flights from Manchester to Beijing by Chinese President Xi Jinping, underlines the importance of this strategy; it also highlights the increased Chinese investment flowing into Manchester, including £800m invested in the airport expansion, as well as other funding for wider urban regeneration.

Another set of assets contributing to Manchester’s growth are its universities, which draw highly-skilled future employees from across the globe to the city, and produce innovative research which has major economic benefits when commercialised. A 2003 report from Manchester council termed the city’s universities its “knowledge factories”. The term makes clear that they aren’t merely sites for scholarly learning, but play a role in economic growth.

A new form of city government

Precipitated by both the neglect of the London-centric national governments, and by the failure of the socialist city administrations to deal with the economic problems faced by Manchester in the post-war period, the city government changed course in the 1980s.

The Labour council had previously been driven by a redistributive and welfarist agenda, prioritising the protection of jobs in the declining industrial sector – policies in marked contrast to the aggressive privatisation and de-industrialisation pursued by the national Conservative governments of the time.

Manchester’s council dramatically changed direction in 1987, moving towards a governance form labeled “urban entrepreneurialism” by the radical geographer David Harvey: governing in alliance with businesses rather than relying on a centralised bureaucracy, and focusing on increasing the city’s competitiveness within the global market, for example through place marketing strategies. Others have instead labeled it realism: a new approach that acknowledges the failure of past redistributive methods to halt urban decline and social injustice.

In recent years, the Manchester city region has increasingly exercised power independently of the nation state. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), formed in 2011, brought the city-region’s 10 local authorities together into one body. From next year, the GMCA will be led by a directly elected mayor (most likely, Labour big beast Andy Burnham) with control over the policy areas of employment, housing, transport and economic development. The executive board exercising these powers will be assisted by a business leadership council comprising both public and private sector actors.

Another example is the council’s use of the transnational Eurocities network, bypassing the passivity of the nation state to seek international expertise in place-marketing tactics and acquisition of EU funding.

Manchester today. Image: Getty.

The state continues to be influential – not least because it facilitates the increasingly independent exercise of power by Manchester’s city institutions, as shown by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne’s pursuit of the “Northern Powerhouse” agenda.

The state also retains influence over Manchester through its membership of the EU – which, as the examples of the Eurocities network and EU funding suggest, has been a significant asset for the city. The implementation of Brexit could have a profound impact on Manchester’s economic strategy, and yet it is a nationally determined policy: both in terms of the referendum’s electorate, and in terms of who leads the Article 50 negotiations with other member states.

A “post-political” city?

The idea of a “Manchester Miracle” is tempered by the evidence of negative effects on social outcomes and democratic decision-making processes in Manchester.

Academic critics of the entrepreneurial and relatively independent city government and its new approach have pointed to the dangers of its “post-political” nature for two main reasons. The new streamlined, business-friendly institutional forms have been accused of, firstly, eroding democratic principles, and secondly, subordinating social justice to the pursuit of economic growth.

There has been a relatively lukewarm response from local activists to the imminent governance changes so far – yet the new political structures could in fact give greater opportunity for citizens to directly engage with local policy through more powerful, locally accountable representatives.

Like Sadiq Khan’s London, we could be witnessing the metamorphosis of the city of Manchester into a major political space – whether or not it gians its independence.

Fred Paxton is studying for a Masters degree in urban studies at the University of Copenhagen. He tweets as @fredpaxton.

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Why is it acceptable to kill someone? On the mysterious history of Britain’s road death toll

A London speed camera, 2004. Image: Getty.

A decade ago I became fascinated by a graph. This one:

I had been tracking the underlining data for years. The figures were easy to remember. Every year it was 3,500, plus or minus a percentage point or two.

Yet when the 2008 data was released, it had fallen to 2,538. This was 1,000 less than the figure in 2003. I plotted the above graph, and as I said, I became fascinated.

Because this is a really important graph. This is a plot of the number of people killed on Britain’s roads each year.

In Great Britain, collectively, we used to kill nearly 3,500 people on our roads every year. Consistently or, dare I say it, boringly: 3,500 deaths a year, 10 a day. It was accepted, in a, “Well yes it’s bad, but what can you do about it” kind of way. There was no clamour for change. Newspapers weren’t running headlines about the deaths mounting up, as they do with knife crime.

Meanwhile a train crash would be front page news for a week. Take the train that derailed at Hatfield on 17 October 2000, a tragedy in which 4 people died. That led to huge media interest, massive upheaval on the railways, and, ultimately, as the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, whose failings had caused the crash. Yet more than twice as many people will have died on the roads that day. Nothing was written about those deaths. Nothing changed.

In 2000, four people died in train crashes, while 3,409 died on the roads.

Here are those figures again.

1997 – 3,599 people killed on our roads

1998 – 3,422

1999 – 3,423

2000 – 3,409

2001 – 3,450

2002 – 3,431

2003 – 3508

But, in 2004 the figure dropped below 3,400 for the first time, to 3,221. Then in 2005 to 3,201.

2006 – 3,172

2007 – 2,946

Below 3,000! This was change. Significant change: 500 lives a year were not being lost. If you use Britain’s roads, your life may have been one of them.

2008 – 2,538

2009 – 2,222

When the 2010 figures came out I was amazed by the headline figure: 1,857.

That’s still far too high, of course, but it was 1,701 lower than seven years earlier.

This was a major story that deserved a ton of coverage, which it failed to get. Having shown no concern for when we were killing 3,500 people, it wasn’t overly surprising that the fact we were now killing 1,700 fewer wasn’t celebrated.

At any rate, the graph had flat-lined for years, then, in half a dozen years, it halved. Why?

The lack of media coverage resulted in an absence of answers. One commentator, Christian Woolmar, observed that there was no clear answer to why this had happened. But he went on to point out that there had been a fall in the average road speed over this period.

My anticipation of the 2011 figures troubled me, because I expected them to go up. Obviously I didn’t want them to: I desperately want zero deaths on our roads. But something happened in 2010 that I was sure would lead to more fatalities and bring a halt to the falling trend.

I was right. In 2011 we killed 1,901.

Sometimes, being right is shit.

The news was better in 2012. The fatality rate was 1,754. So was the 2011 figure just a blip, due to some significant snowfalls that year? No: the trend was over.

The number of people killed on our roads has remained stuck in the 17 hundreds. 

2013 – 1,713

2014 – 1,775

2015 – 1,732

2016 – 1,792

2017 – 1,793

2018 – 1,782

We have returned to a flatline on the graph – and if anything, I’m more fascinated now than I was before. Road deaths flatlined at 3,500 for years, then fell sharply, then flatlined again at half the rate.

This can’t have happened by accident. I wished I could explain it. I wish we could repeat it. No: I wish the second flatline hadn’t happened, and the fall had continued. If the rate of fall had continued, we’d have reached zero deaths on the road by now. You’d be right to question whether this is possible – but if you can half the number in a few years, why can’t we eradicate them altogether? The railways are an example of what is possible. The last time a passenger died in a train crash on Britain’s railways was in 2007.

It was time to figure out the answers to two questions. Why did the death toll fall? And why did it stop falling?

The obvious reason for a reduction in deaths on the road is the improvement in car safety features. This could create a gradual fall in the death toll as new, safer cars replaced older ones. But I’m not sure it can explain a 40 per cent fall over a 4 year period.

There’s a way to check whether cars on the road became almost twice as safe between 2003 and 2010: you can compare the figures with the rest of the EU. Car safety features are international, and any new feature would have appeared around the same time across the continent.

So I found the EU figures for 2000 to 2017, indexed for 2000 and plotted the graph for multiple countries. It was a busy graph. For clarity the following graph only includes Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy along with a straight line drop for comparison.

The good news is that things are improving across Europe – but no country had quite the same trajectory as Britain. They all have a fall much closer to a straight line of the sort you’d expect a general improvement in car safety would produce.

One thing I did notice is that, from 2013, these five countries stop falling. The technology based solutions of recent years, such as automatic emergency braking, don’t appear to be saving lives as of yet.

So, yes, cars are safer – but that doesn’t seem to explain why British roads suddenly became 40 per cent safer between 2006 and 2010.


In 1999, the New Labour government announced that it was going to reduce deaths on our roads. The target was a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As you now know, it succeeded. This was a major achievement for a government. The kind of thing you would bang on about all the time. “Deaths on our roads halved by Labour!” But the party wasn’t in government when the 2010 figures were released – and it’s hard to take credit for your achievements from the opposition benches.

That it was government policy is not a full explanation, and how this happened is a little opaque. From what I can gather there was a wide ranging approach. The fire and rescue service changed their practices: because they recognised that survival rates were directly dependent on how quickly people got to hospital, this became the priority. Disturbing a police crime scene was allowed if it saved a life. Accident black spots were located, highlighted and safety measures implemented. Throughout that period road safety campaigns focused on speed, with “Speed Kills” being the dominate message for that decade. The government also changed the laws on speed cameras.

RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has a lot to say about speeding and speed cameras. Its “Speed Camera Factsheet” states that, “Cameras are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, and thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured.” It reports that an independent review published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2005 said that “cameras significantly reduce speeding and collisions, and cut deaths and serious injuries at camera sites”, adding that cameras sites were delivering 100 fewer deaths per year.

Cameras first appeared in 1991, and revenue from court fines and fixed penalties went to the Exchequer. However in 2000 a trial scheme saw local councils keep the fines to pay for the cost of speed and red-light cameras. The pilot was so successful that, in 2001, legislation enabled this to happen across the country. The cost of providing and operating cameras moved from the local authority to the law breaking motorist.

The golden age of the speed camera had begun.

There was a tweak to this legislation in 2007. Fines reverted back to the Exchequer’s piggy bank. The DfT switched to funding cameras through a road safety grant. The intention was to create a greater mix of road safety measures agreed between local authorities and the police.

The number of people killed on British roads in 2007: 2,946

The number of people killed on British roads in 2010: 1,857

So perhaps the creation of the Road Safety Grant had a significant impact.

The second question: why did the death toll stop falling?

In 2010 I was unaware of Labour’s target to halve deaths on the roads. But, the change in government was enough for me to predict that the fall was over.

When the Tory/Lib Dem government negotiated its way into power in May 2010, the press declared that it was the end of the horrible nanny state – a return to personal freedom, liberty and the rule of common sense.

The way that this was to play out in real practical terms was on our roads. The evil speed camera was in the firing line. The narrative was that these cameras were just there so councils could extract cash from the poor public. Completely ignored were the facts that the fines were only handed down to dangerous, law-breaking drivers, and that councils no longer got the cash from fines.

Soon after the election the coalition government said that “Labour's 13-year war on the motorist is over” and pledged to scrap public funding for speed cameras. The Road Safety Grant to local authorities was cut from £95m to £57m. This meant that the government was now receiving an estimated £40m more raised in fines than it was spending on road safety. The cut to the grant reduced the camera maintenance budget by 27 per cent. It removed all the funding for new cameras, speed humps and other safety measures.

And the golden age ended.

Councils across the country announced their change of policy. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its speed cameras on 1 August 2010. Money was saved; lives were lost.

Eight months later, on 1 April, Oxfordshire’s cameras snapped back into life when the council reversed its decision because deaths on the county’s roads had immediately increased.

Turning off speed cameras sent out the message that we were no longer taking speeding seriously. The road safety campaigns changed their focus. The message that Speed Kills fell away and was replaced by drink- and drug-driving messages. It’s easy to miss that these campaigns move from encompassing virtually every driver to targeting a minority. A switch from confronting a socially acceptable behaviour to re-enforcing something already unacceptable. The state is no longer challenging everyone to be safe – only the small minority of bad people.

Yet speed still kills. The World Health Organisation states that an increase in average speed of 1 km[h typically results in a 3 per cent higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5 per cent increase for crashes that result in fatalities.
The majority of safety measures installed before 2010 remain in place and are saving lives. But with the funding gone councils are no longer installing new measures and the death toll is no longer falling.

So you can make a strong case that the pattern of road deaths was the result of government policy.

Which begs the question of our government: why has it accepted that it’s OK to kill, or be killed, on our roads?