The first BBC staff moved to Salford Quays last week, marking the beginning of a mass exodus from London as thousands of staff move to the new MediaCityUK development. It’s been hard to miss the furore that’s surrounded the plans: from the high-profile resignations of major faces including BBC Breakfast presenter Sian Williams, to the commentary in the media, the BBC might as well be moving hundreds of miles away. Roy Gleenslade, writing in the London Evening Standard, was particularly vehement. “London is where things happen,” he writes. “It is the nation’s political pivot, its cultural heart, its legal centre. The capital is the focal point of almost every major activity and interest you care to name.”
Most people living north of London would beg to differ. Yes, it’s a little colder up north, and certainly less hectic, but these reactions to the BBC’s move are symptomatic of a widespread, erroneous belief that there’s little life outside of London. Relocating north needn’t mean resigning yourself to a cultural or business wasteland; in fact, it can provide new opportunities. The BBC has clearly realised the benefits of engaging with the economic and cultural forces that drive life north of London, and other businesses could benefit too, establishing their difference to their competitors, taking advantage of local talent and making the most of the quirks of the different regions.
To start with, London tends to attract all cultural and business activity within a 50 mile radius, so there are few other major cities in the south. But north of London there are many major cities less than an hour’s drive from each other – from Sheffield, York and Leeds to Manchester, Blackpool and Liverpool – which all maintain distinct identities. It’s also much easier to commute from the suburbs than it is for anyone working in London. Anyone working in the MediaCityUK development, for example, could live in a picturesque village or town in the Peak District or the Cheshire countryside, which are less than a 45 minute drive away.
Thanks to the collapse of industry in the mid-twentieth century, northern cities have a reputation as grim skeletons of a vanished age. But the industrial developments left behind can be where the most exciting ideas develop. Just as areas of east London have become artistic hotspots, low rents in former industrial areas across the UK attract fledgling artists and entrepreneurs. Digbeth in Birmingham, for example, is the site of a thriving community of creative enterprises which take advantage of the area’s large spaces and cheap prices. Meanwhile, former warehouses and factories have been transformed into striking, centrally located office and residential spaces along canals in Leeds and Birmingham, and retail and cultural spaces in The Lowry in Manchester and the Albert Dock in Liverpool.
Stark differences in property prices mean businesses can make considerable savings moving north, and it’s also cheaper to live there. Property in Manchester, for example, currently costs around half that of property in London: according to the County Homesearch Company, a large independent network of homefinders in the UK, an apartment in Manchester city centre will cost on average £168,000, while a similar property in Shepherds Bush, close to the BBC’s White City studios, costs £311,349.
Reading the comments in the media, anyone would think that Coronation Street was northern England’s cultural apotheosis. But it’s been a long time since life there was all factory work, ale and flat caps. It’s well known that there’s a rich musical history up north, and northern cities’ music scenes continue to thrive, but there are more genteel options available too, from respected theatres, art galleries and museums to stately homes and parks. It’s testament to northern England’s growing cultural prowess that, this year, the Stirling Prize for architecture will be announced in Rotherham and the Turner Prize at the Baltic in Gateshead.
As more organisations move to MediaCityUK, it will be vital for British companies to stay up to date with shifts in northern England’s cultural and economic clout. As respected media commentator Raymond Snoddy argues: “Walk into Salford Quays even in its present, uncompleted empty state and you don’t have to be too imaginative to see a future production hub taking shape that could in time give London a run for its money at least in terms of creativity if not volume.”
Cheaper property, creative innovation and a peaceful life in the suburbs: life up north doesn’t sound too unappealing. And there’s not a flat cap in sight.