Leaders of Manchester spent last week complaining that their city had lost out on a Japanese-style high-speed train to London.
Perhaps the low point of the debate, triggered by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s cost-cutting decision, was a TV guest suggesting that the line was no great loss, as its greatest value was to enable people to take a 90-minute trip for dinner in London. The guest was obviously not based in Manchester, and it was an unfair bit of London-centric taunting.
England’s third city is these days a place transformed. Every street seems to have a high-rise building project in progress. There is a strong local leadership capable of bringing its unique identity to the world. And the world, particularly its students, is coming to Manchester.
I won’t be patronising here and saying that Manchester doesn’t really need the £100 billion ($122.3bn) HS2 line, as the guest on TV tried to argue. But I will say that if you read headlines decrying the lack of vision in scrapping a once-in-a-generation public infrastructure investment, don’t let that imply that Manchester’s prosperity agenda has been knocked out for the count.
Even a fleeting visit last week was enough to demonstrate the city as youthful, vibrant and building on its strengths.
Among those decrying the decision, alongside Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, was a handful of former prime ministers. David Cameron took to X, formerly Twitter, to say the UK was heading in the wrong direction. Big infrastructure projects show countries on the rise, he said, calling the decision an opportunity lost.
Mr Burnham held a streetside news conference to make the same point. He lined up behind him representatives of industry, education and culture to show the breadth of feeling in the city. He could have added sport, life sciences, AI and advanced technology to the mix.
Alongside sport, these are the pillars of the city. While I do not doubt the depth of their dismay, I also can see their fundamental strengths are only affected, not diminished.
One of the aspects of co-ordinated growth of the type that Manchester has thrived from in recent decades is a multitude of analytical reports to breakdown what success looks like. Sport is the city’s passion whether blue or devilish red. It’s no surprise that the rise of Manchester City and the urban regeneration around its ground has been so instrumental in the success story.
One of the local authority’s brochures makes some points as to why the city has the heritage to be a leader in the field of AI.
A new accelerator for AI technology is named after the father of computing Alan Turing, who lectured in the city. Ernest Rutherford and the team that first split the atom in Manchester too. More recently, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov fashioned the first layer of graphene.
Alongside one of the canals is the Manchester University sign that is paired with the UAE’s Masdar. The Abu Dhabi-based clean technology and renewable energy contributed £30 million to a graphene institute in 2014 and has seen its potential grow into the billions.
Thus, the Manchester City team is but one of the links with the UAE. The proposition has been described as a wrap-around interest in the northern metropolis. Development is anchored by the rise of the club and the partnerships in life sciences and advanced technology.
In the past decade, the economy of the city has grown by more than one third. It already has connectivity advantages with 7.2 million people living within one hour of the city centre.
Manchester has worked to create a structured relationship with China and India and that openness means that over 100,000 students attend its institutions. While the city’s politicians are broadly on the left, it feels like its traditions of free trade and international openness are more deeply entrenched here than most parts of the UK.
As the HS2 row was unfolding, certain Conservative politicians at its conference in Manchester were coming up with a new villain. The 15-minute city approach to urban living was being described as “sinister” by Transport Minister Mark Harper.
The concept is being likened to a form of creeping control over ordinary lives. Carlos Moreno, the man who coined the term, hit out at the attacks on his vision.
“Associating the ‘15-minute city’ again with so-called ‘liberty-restricting’ measures is tantamount to aligning with the most radical and anti-democratic elements,” he said in a statement. Mr Moreno has worked with Manchester on some of its neighbourhood designs.
It would not be the first time that Manchester’s success has come in spite of the national government not as a result of policies. The same is true of those other great cities Liverpool and Newcastle.
That is because they have something to offer the world that is valuable and dynamic. Even if their progress is not always honoured by their own homeland.