How to make Greater Manchester even Greater Will Greater Manchester fulfil its Potential with Devolution?

Greater Manchester’s future is at a critical point. A widening North/South divide means that people are leaving the metropolitan county to pursue opportunities further down the UK. The councils’ call for better infrastructure and new powers, yet were answered with a budget £58 million cuts. Change needs to come to the 10 boroughs (including two cities) which make up the region. Is this a problem which could be solved be devolution? Or do the ten split councils, represented by different political parties and viewpoints, need to be re-evaluated and put Greater Manchester’s needs first?

The Cities: Salford and Manchester

Salford and Manchester are two impressive cities situated right next to each other. This has caused friction for years as they vie for national attention. Though whether the two cities could merge together or whether there proud histories and heritages would clash remains to be seen.

In Salford, signs of activity date back to as early as the Stone Age. With over 250 listed and protected buildings, this borough has some of the most comprehensive history in the country. Stretching from the rural West, bordering on Cheshire and consisting primarily of Chat Moss, a large peat bog making up 30% of the borough, to the industrialised East which is seeing massive amounts of regeneration and modernisation, Salford is arguably the most diverse of Greater Manchester’s ten boroughs.

Manchester’s credentials are equally impressive; it is a truly global city. Originally a Roman fort, these days it is better known for its music scene and football clubs. Manchester is often thought of as the capital of the North and attracts over 100 million tourists per year to see its most famous sights. Out of all the Greater Manchester boroughs, Manchester is the largest with a population of over 500,000.

The two cities saw surges in popularity in the early 1800’s thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the great impact it had in the North West of England. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Northern cities to work in textile factories and incredible transport links were created, such as the Manchester Ship Canal, to capitalise on the region’s sudden prosperity. During this period, Salford was being viewed as more important than Manchester, although their fortunes have since reversed. However, as the Industrial Revolution came to a finish, the following decades saw the two cities began to suffer as factories closed and poverty grew.

Salford’s population, which had risen dramatically from 12,000 in 1812 to 70,244 in 1842, and had inflated to an unmanageable 220,000 by the end of 19th century, was suddenly shrinking massively. The crowded Victorian slums of the city decreased from 234,045 in 1921 to 166,387 in 1939 thanks to the Great Depression. The unemployment rate was also rising massively as the city’s industries were slowly being replaced by foreign alternatives. Salford was home to some of the most deprived slums in the country.

The 1930s saw similar problems for Manchester, but come 1940 the city centre was faced with an even greater threat. It was the beginning of the Second World War, and the city was one of the Luftwaffe’s targets. A lot of the historical city centre was destroyed, including the Manchester Cathedral which then took twenty years to rebuild and damage to over 30,000 houses.

However, in time, the cities started to recover and the great regeneration began in the late 1980’s. Manchester saw the introduction of a light rail service- the Metrolink, a state-of-the-art concert hall- the Bridgewater Hall and a 21,000 seat stadium- the Manchester Arena. Equally, the late eighties saw the unused Port of Salford rebranded as ‘Salford Quays’. £280 million of investment was dedicated to improve the area, creating new roads and bridges, a waterfront promenade and new commercial facilities.

These late 1980’s investments galvanised the two boroughs, attracting national attention and effectively changing their reputations from fading Northern towns to the modern, noteworthy cities of today.

That being said, their stories are far from over. In fact, both Manchester and Salford have recently seen great increases in popularity. Manchester has seen unprecedented growth in the past few years, the second highest rate in the country after London. This is expected to continue over the next years. Equally Salford has recently had a mini baby boom which is set to increase their population from 237,000 in 2012 to 261,000 in 2022.

These two bustling boroughs offer unique attractions and histories, so it is surprising to learn that the only thing separating them is one ancient boundary: the River Irwell. This winding river traverses across the Salford countryside before meeting Manchester City Centre in the west and forming the start of the Manchester Ship Canal. The Irwell then travels back through Salford towards Liverpool, this time flowing into the docks of Salford Quays, a modern development site revitalising this part of Salford.

These days the legitimacy of the river as a boundary is frequently called into question. Manchester and Salford’s centres are so close, is there any real point in distinguishing between the two? Some people want to merge Salford into Manchester, allowing the cities to make the most of what the other has. Manchester is a much larger, internationally renowned city, but Salford has unique advantages such as MediaCityUK- Europe’s first purpose built business hub. A 2014 survey by online magazine Mancunian Matters saw that 57% of people were in favour of amalgamation. Plus with shared infrastructure and the same greater authority, the question is also raised of how merged they already are. Does a river boundary and the two city names truly distinguish them from one and other? Or have their identities blurred together in this modern age of connectivity?

The Argument for Devolution

This is not just a situation facing Salford and Manchester. All ten of Greater Manchester’s boroughs (Bolton, Bury, Chorlton, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan) are no longer seen as strictly separate, with people living, working and socialising amongst them all.

The 10 boroughs together would form an impressive, global conurbation ready to match the capital. London dominates the United Kingdom when it comes to investment, population and overall vibrancy. However, a unified Greater Manchester would be the largest non-capital city in Europe and would easily garner a reputation equal to the capital.

Greater Manchester has approximately the same population of Chicago, and a unified Greater Manchester could have the same reputation of Chicago. With one leader making decisions to better the whole metropolitan county, rather than 10 mayors from a range of political parties with their own agendas, the city would flourish.

Should it ever form to become one city, Greater Manchester would have some of the best facilities in the country. The region is mostly industrialised, but also has beautiful rural areas to explore. For culture, there is a vast array of museums and galleries, from the southern Grade 2 listed Hat Museum in Stockport, to Salford’s Lowry theatre and museum, dedicated to the work of the famous local artist. Currently, the city centre is the hotbed for Manchester culture, with multiple museums ranging from the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester to the National Football Museum. Greater Manchester is also home to five universities, attracting over 100,000 students to the region every year, and providing vital research to the country.

Transport is also another of the conurbation’s positives, the Metrolink which began in the 80s now spans almost 100 stops from the original 26 across multiple boroughs. Manchester Piccadilly station serves all the UK major cities but most notable is the thriving Manchester Airport.

Manchester Airport is partly owned by all ten councils, and the perfect example of how the city working together is the key to its success. The airport won the ‘Best UK Airport’ award at the prestigious Globe Travel Awards at the end of 2014. Footfall figures were at an 8 year high, almost meeting the 22million passengers of 2006 and a number of new destinations were made available, including Hong Kong, Toronto and Jeddah.

Rather than trying to become a second capital city, Greater Manchester should focus on cultivating what it already does well. Manchester is already home to a number of “unique selling points”, two of which being its internationally renowned football clubs- Manchester United and Manchester City.

But Manchester is not only famous for its sports. Recently Professor Bruce Katz, a major political advisor in the US, toured the city and was very impressed: “I like how Manchester is creative, willing to take risks and not necessarily doing things by the book”, praising Manchester’s “disruptive” attitude towards innovation.

Excitingly, Chancellor George Osborne’s recent promises of devolution to the city could offer just this opportunity for unification. Alongside a single Mayor, due to be elected in 2017, the chancellor has promised to transfer £1billion from Whitehall back to the region, giving Greater Manchester new powers in the form of: a skills budget, complete control over transport infrastructure and a housing investment fund of £10million over the next 30 years.

However, any sort of amalgamation, whether between cities Salford and Manchester or between the ten boroughs, does not have to mean the end of the existing locales. The boundaries will never fully fade whilst place names exist. The population will continue to grow but the local history of an area will not be forgotten. In fact, interest in Greater Manchester’s heritage will only be magnified as it gains a larger international reputation, encouraging more people to take note of the UK’s second city.