Here are brief reviews of 10 UK cities from an opinionated French immigrant

Brighton, England’s Cartaret. Image: Getty.

Happy Brexit week, my friends! To celebrate this momentous time for Britain, I, a European immigrant, have decided to make a top 10 of your best cities, based on nothing but the time I have spent there, which ranges from a total of ten days to seven hours.

In order to help usher in this new chapter of your relationship with Europe, I thought it would be useful for you to let yourself be judged by your continental neighbours, and, specifically, by me.

I have not included London because it is where I live and I do not wish to be biased – this is serious work – and I must send my apologies to the good people of Wales as I have never visited and cannot judge what I have not seen.

With those caveats aside: here, in no particular order, are my reviews of 10 of your best British cities.

Manchester

Manchester’s alright isn’t it? I have been there five times and each time has been solidly alright. Huge fan of the big red brick buildings and the smaller red brick buildings also, but not much else to report besides that.

Well: I did have a cheesy omelette and chips in a caff in Hulme last year for £3.50. That feels worth noting. You’re alright, Manchester.

Birmingham

I find Birmingham a bit odd, if I’m honest with you. The first few times I went I really didn’t enjoy it, thought the city centre was quite bland, but then I went to stay in the Jewellery Quarter and I properly enjoyed it.

In conclusion: if you have never been to Birmingham I would recommend hanging out away from the centre, which is the least nice bit of the city, and then you will have a pleasant time. I mean, I assume. Don’t come to me for advice.


Brighton

First of all, I resent the fact that it is supposedly “Brighton and Hove” because I only ever really go to Brighton when I go to Brighton and Hove, and I also question the practice of sticking seaside towns together for no apparent reason.

We do it in France too. In my family’s neck of the woods, Barneville and Carteret got merged literally decades before I was born, but it is still such a controversial topic that I grew up with nothing but contempt for the people of inferior Barneville.

But anyway, “just Brighton”, as I call it: it’s good but it’s no Hastings, isn’t it? Also: too many hills. Absolutely no need for all those hills. Still, there’s a beach, so I remain a fan.

Edinburgh

Powerfully into it. That posh bit that has virtually no people in the streets and absolutely stunning buildings and little parks? What all cities should be like. Empty and pretty. People call it a museum city like it’s a bad thing. Fools.

Leeds

Listen, I went to Leeds once. Ten years ago. For one night. My French friend had moved to Bradford for an exchange and was homesick so I went to see her and on the Saturday night we went to an illegal rave on the outskirts of Leeds, the ones you had to receive cryptic texts about to find out where it was because it was 2009.

We went to get the train back to Bradford at... something am? Something pm perhaps? And we walked through the campus of Leeds University and because it was fresher’s week there were some people handing out free Domino’s pizzas.

This was my time in Leeds and I give it a solid, heart-rending 10/10. Great place, would be 17 there again.

Belfast

A very good city, in my opinion. When I went there for the first time I saw a dot on Google Maps that said “The Big Fish, the Salmon of Knowledge”, which is objectively the funniest thing you can spot on the map of a city you do not know.

Anyway, I went to see The Big Fish, the Salmon of Knowledge and it is a ten-metre long blue statue of a fish, and you can text her questions about Belfast and she’ll text back. Brilliant.

Also: the architecture is nice.

Cambridge

Extremely good buildings, far too many idiots on bikes. Every time I’m there I stop walking to look at a nice building and nearly get run over by a cyclist. A beautiful but stressful place.

Liverpool

Was not looking forward to this one because, if there is one thing you learn relatively quickly as a foreigner in Britain, it is that Liverpudlians take their city powerfully seriously. I respect that, but I fear it.

As a result, what I will say about Liverpool is this: it’s a very lively city! Clearly young and full of life and once I found myself in the city centre at 1am on a Saturday night and it honest to god looked like a war zone. I sincerely do not think I could ever go properly on the lash in Liverpool without dying. To Liverpool I say: I fear you and I respect you.

Glasgow

Yes to Glasgow! It’s pretty, it’s alive, the people are nice, and once I went to pet a dog in a park and the old lady at the other end of the leash talked to me for a solid ten minutes and I didn’t understand a word she said because her accent was so thick, but she’s my best friend now. If I weren’t a Mediterranean-blooded coward I would 100% move to Glasgow.

York

Okay yeah we get it York, you’re nice. You’re very old and so much history has happened within your walls and you’re very beautiful. Fine. Whatever. You’re “Fit But You Know It” by The Streets, York, that’s what you are.

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.