Regional Review – Manchester

Regional Forum

We’re in our adopted hometown, Manchester, for our second Mix Inspired event. Beforehand, however, we’ve headed to Connection’s showspace in the heart of the city to chat with a couple of people who know their way around both the historic streets and the interiors market up here – Space Invaders’ Simon Millington and Ralph Capper Interiors’ Ben Capper.

manchester_19We begin the conversation by talking about the noticeable change we’ve seen in Manchester’s accommodation and hotel prices/availability over the past few years.

I think a lot of that is to do with the fact that we’ve now got two major European football teams and there are now so many conferences and events on – we had David Cameron and the Conservatives up here last week, for example. There are so many new hotels here – and occupancy continues to grow and grow despite that. There have also been 60 new restaurant openings this year. Hotel room occupancy peeked at 95%.

Sometimes we forget how small Manchester is. It’s a little district in many ways. It has so much going on. The Manchester International Festival gets bigger and bigger every time it comes to town – and then you have the concerts, the conferences, the football…

The council has done really well over the last couple of decades. People like Howard Bernstein and his team have been really dynamic in attracting business into Manchester. Howard Bernstein has been at the centre of a long-term plan for the city. Manchester is an international city now – and that’s because they’ve attracted investment again and again. And they’ve attracted business in areas where there was previously no investment at all.

There was a story in the press that Manchester recently had its busiest period – not in the normal peak holiday time – but from income from overseas students flying into town. That has to have an impact on not just the hotel and restaurant business in the city but everything else that goes alongside that.

So what started the great Manchester resurgence? It can’t all be about Man Utd and Sir Alex can it?

The IRA bomb was a massive thing for Manchester because it gave a lot of people a reason to change things – architects such as Ian Simpson, for example.

That was around the time we won the bid for the Commonwealth Games. We also did the Olympic bid and nobody took us seriously. That Commonwealth experience gave us a real springboard and made us a very much more outward-looking city – Manchester looked at how other cities around the world had done it, how they had reinvented themselves. It’s had that continuity – with Howard Bernstein being at the helm for a very long time. Everyone talks about the Olympic legacy in London, but just look at the Commonwealth legacy around Eastlands and Sports City. You’re not just getting a centre of excellence for science and medicine over in the university area – you’ve also got an international centre of excellence over at Eastlands. This is all part of Howard’s long-term vision. We’ve also got a great airport, and a great, unique story. 

That stadium – Eastlands – is now making money. Not only is it Sports City now and has expanded massively, but the foreign investment that’s come in to anchor it… and that Middle East investment would like to buy it, but the council are quite happy to just rent it to them and keep it as an asset. The investment in that area means that 6,000 new homes are going to get built.

These areas just need to get a little bit of character now. This feels like it’s all part of a masterplan – they’re putting the pieces together bit by bit. This is a world-class team of people. It’s not very often, when it comes to talking about politicians, that you can say that everybody in this city respects them. People want to hear what they’re saying – and will go along with it. You look at the devolution thing – why did Manchester get that before anyone else? It’s because there is a central government trust over what they are doing here. They run this city incredibly well. For 20 years this city has continued to grow – and we’re still busy refurbishing old buildings like the Central Library. All that old Victorian legacy stock – which could have been ripped down to make way for shiny steel and glass – is now mixing with the new stuff. That’s really exciting. As a designer I’ve never had to go to London – I’ve always had brilliant projects up here. And that’s getting better every year.

There’s a real momentum behind all these things. It’s allowing a world-class viewpoint because you’ve got a lot more stakeholders – it’s not just owned by introspective Mancunians. It’s about people now coming into this city saying ‘I want a bit of that!’ 

The Northern Revival

Last month we focused on the wonderful merchant city of Glasgow, and this month we are turn our attention to another great
Northern City, the powerhouse that is Manchester.

Unless you are either ill-informed or in denial you will be all too aware of Manchester’s impressive current standing in the UK business landscape. There is little value in referring to ‘second city’ or other such hyperbole but when the facts are considered Manchester is going through a great second wave of prosperity.

With the current level of excitement you are less likely to hear about cotton mills and industrial revolution and more about
hi-tech, world class higher education and the BBC.

So why has Manchester gained such a strengthened position
in the business world? Whilst you’ll see our version of a swot analysis on the right later on, arguably the three key reasons for Manchester are the civic leadership, education and logistics.

Firstly, in 1984 Richard Lease was elected to the Manchester City Council. He was Deputy Leader for six years before taking over the leadership in 1996. SHB (Sir Howard Bernstein) as he is known by those that dare to be familiar, started life at the Council as a clerk becoming Chief Executive in 1998.

manchester_11Much of what has been achieved by the dynamic duo has arguably been over the last 10 years as their expediential traction of influence takes hold. However, many will see the 1996 IRA bomb as a catalyst for both their rise and that of the city. The 2002 Commonwealth Games was a success but, crucially, what has become of East Manchester is seen by many as the benchmark of multi-sport legacy.

With 19 and 17 years as respective leaders it is clear that some businesses looking for long term investment will be assured by the longevity of the two men in charge. Whilst we are not suggesting that the leaders below are in any way at a disadvantage, it is clear that a strong stable civic leadership is just one of the reasons for Manchester’s current position of strength.

The second rung on the ladder for Manchester is the higher education sector. It’s much quoted that the city region has one of the largest student populations in Europe; a great fact but this belies the real benefit. From an investment opportunity private rental sector (PRS) is very attractive, with reported over 65% of 100,000+ students staying after graduation. The National Graphene Institute opened in March, and the £61m University of Manchester Research Centre was a stopping point for the Chinese leader as he visited the only city outside London in October. Manchester Metropolitan University is a true believer of getting students ‘work read’ and is currently working with Network Rail, AstraZeneca, Barclays and Thales to aid degree apprenticeships in Digital and Technology Solutions.

Thirdly, Manchester is truly well connected; in terms of road freight most of the UK is within a four hour drive and with ‘sheds’ galore around its 10 motorways it is therefore no surprise that some of the biggest global companies use it as a distribution hub. However, it’s the airport that often gets the headlines, being the largest freight terminal outside London. Recent investment by the Beijing Construction Engineering Group (BCEG) heralded a plan over the next 10 years to create ‘Airport City’. Working with partners including Manchester Airports Group (owned by the 10 local authorities of Greater Manchester – 55% Manchester City Council and 5% each the other nine) Airport City is in Greater Manchester’s Enterprise Zone, where businesses can benefit from business rate reduction. Two new business districts have also just been announced; Wuhan Square and Shenzhen Gardens, designed specifically for Chinese businesses. Another example of Manchester thinking big.