“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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Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.