MANCHESTER – I am a proud Mancunian (as the people of Manchester are known), despite the fact I haven’t lived here permanently since I left school for university when I was 18. I was born in St. Mary’s hospital near the city center, was raised in a pleasant suburb in South Manchester, and attended a normal primary and junior school in a nearby, tougher neighborhood, before attending Burnage for secondary school. Thirty-eight years after I attended Burnage, so too, apparently, did Salman Abedi, the suspected Manchester Arena bomber.
The atrocity carried out by Abedi, for which the Islamic State has claimed credit, is probably worse than the dreadful bombing by the Irish Republican Army that destroyed parts of the city center 21 years ago, an event that many believe played a key role in Manchester’s renaissance. At least in that case, the bombers gave a 90-minute warning that helped avoid loss of life. Abedi’s barbaric act, by contrast, killed at least 22 people, many of them children.
In recent years, I have been heavily involved in the policy aspects of this great city’s economic revival. I chaired an economic advisory group to the Greater Manchester Council, and then served as Chair of the Cities Growth Commission, which advocated for the “Northern Powerhouse,” a program to link the cities of the British north into a cohesive economic unit. Subsequently, I briefly joined David Cameron’s government, to help implement the early stages of the Northern Powerhouse.
I have never attended a concert at the Manchester Arena, but it appears to be a great venue for the city. Just as Manchester Airport has emerged as a transport hub serving the Northern Powerhouse, the arena plays a similar role in terms of live entertainment. As the sad reports about those affected indicate, attendees came from many parts of northern England (and beyond).
In the past couple of years, Manchester has received much praise for its economic revival, including its position at the geographic heart of the Northern Powerhouse, and I am sure this will continue. Employment levels and the regional PMI business surveys indicate that, for most of the past two years, economic momentum has been stronger in North West England than in the country as a whole, including London. Whether this is because of the Northern Powerhouse policy is difficult to infer; whatever the reason, it is hugely welcome and important to sustain.
To my occasional irritation, many people still wonder what exactly the Northern Powerhouse is. At its core, it represents the economic geography that lies within Liverpool to the west, Sheffield to the East, and Leeds to the northeast, with Manchester in the middle. The distance from Manchester to the center of any of those other cities is less than 40 miles (64 kilometers), which is shorter than the London Underground’s Central, Piccadilly, or District lines. If the 7-8 million people who live in those cities – and in the numerous towns, villages, and other areas between them – can be connected via infrastructure, they can act as a single unit in terms of their roles as consumers and producers.
The Northern Powerhouse would then be a genuine structural game changer for Britain’s economy. Indeed, along with London, it would be a second dynamic economic zone that registers on a global scale. It is this simple premise that led the previous government to place my ideas at the core of its economic policies, and why the Northern Powerhouse has become so attractive to business here in the United Kingdom and overseas.
It is a thrilling prospect, and, despite being less than three years old, it is showing signs of progress. In fact, given the broader economic benefits of agglomeration, the Northern Powerhouse mantra can be extended to the whole of the North of England, not least to include Hull and the North East. But it is what I often inelegantly call “Man-Sheff-Leeds-Pool” that distinguishes the Northern Powerhouse, and Manchester, which sits at the heart of it, is certainly among the early beneficiaries.
Despite this, I have frequently said to local policy leaders, business people, those from the philanthropic world, and others that unless the areas lying outside the immediate vicinity of central Manchester benefit from regional dynamism, Greater Manchester’s success will be far from complete. Anyone who looks little more than a mile north, south, east, or west of Manchester’s Albert Square – never mind slightly less adjacent parts such as Oldham and Rochdale – can see that much needs to be improved, including education, skills training, and inclusiveness, in order to ensure long-term success.
Whatever the warped motive of the 22-year-old Abedi, who evidently blew himself up along with the innocent victims, his reprehensible act will not tarnish Manchester’s bright, hopeful future. I do not claim to understand the world of terrorism, but I do know that those who live in and around Manchester and other cities need to feel part of their community and share its aspirations. Residents who identify with their community are less likely to harm it – and more likely to contribute actively to its renewed vigor.
Now more than ever, Manchester needs the vision that the Northern Powerhouse provides. It is a vision that other cities and regions would do well to emulate.