Birmingham or Manchester: Which is Britain's second city?

Obviously, it's Birmingham.

Ten years ago, one of the most iconic buildings in the Birmingham skyline, Selfridges, was added to the Bullring shopping complex. It was part of a massive regeneration project, which is continuing today with "The Big City Plan". New Street Station is being transformed. The architectural marvel that is the new Birmingham Library opens next month, and there is even an inner city park being built on the Eastside, the first park in the city centre since Victorian times.

All are part of an attempt to rebrand Birmingham. It longs to reaffirm its status as Britain's second city, after Manchester's has increasing dominance over a title it has held since World War One.

As a born and bred Brummie, with a mother and girlfriend both from Manchester, I feel that I am better placed than most to judge the relative claims of each claimant to the princeship. And in all honestly, there is just no competition.

Hands down, Birmingham is Britain's second city. Why? Most obviously because size does matter. With the largest population and GDP outside of London, in quantifiable terms, the Midland metropolis trumps Manchester. But of course, Manchester’s declaration of superiority has never been based on size, but rather on "culture", supposedly based on quality, not quantity. However, as I see it, even if we analyse the supposed "Capital of the North" in terms of its cultural attractions, Birmingham still comes out on top.

Oasis, the Stone Roses, New Order, the Smiths, Joy Division, et cetera are listed on demand when you ask a Mancunian about their music scene. OK, so they were brilliant bands. They were. The up-and-coming music scene of today is centred in Digbeth, the "Shoreditch of Birmingham", as the NME calls it. As the likes of Peace and Swim Deep demonstrate, the ‘B-town’ scene is fast eclipsing Madchester as a hub of new indie bands.

Even if one does insist on harking back to past musical giants, it’s not only Manchester that boasts a proud history. Pioneers of heavy metal, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Napalm Death, and Godflesh, all originate from Birmingham, lest we forget that Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, UB40, the Electric Light Orchestra, Duran Duran, and the Streets were all Brummie's who created an eclectic mix of genres and should not be dismissed.

Beyond music, admittedly, the recent move of elements of the BBC to Salford Quays and the enduring national treasure that is Coronation Street has brought greater media exposure to Manchester. Such exposure has fuelled misconceptions, demonstrated in a recent poll carried out by Trinity Mirror Data Unit. 28.8 per cent of people living outside of Manchester defined it as the second city, compared to only 18.3 per cent of non-Brummies choosing Birmingham.

However, again, if we delve beneath the perceptions, Birmingham boasts a range of oft-forgotten cultural gems. The city has more canals than Venice, lined with beautifully quaint barges, the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world (which surely rivals Manchester’s Lowry centre), Digbeth’s Custard Factory with its vintage stalls and jazz music, the world-renowned acoustic haven that is the Symphony Hall, Birmingham’s Royal Ballet and of course, Cadbury World, a treasure-trove of unlimited chocolate and life-size drumming Gorillas.

Manchester’s curry mile must also bow down to Brum’s "Balti-Triangle", internationally recognised as the home of curry. Don’t just take my word for it, the New York Times listed Birmingham 19th in its 45 Places to Go in 2012 last year, thanks to the spectacular nature of its baltis. Space was one place behind in 20th, and Manchester didn’t even make the list.

Perhaps with all of this in mind, supporters of Manchester’s claim to the title cling on to the success of their hugely prolific and famous football sides, claiming that the prowess of United, and more recently, City, justify their sense of superiority. But by that logic, following their FA Cup win last season, surely Wigan should be considered one of the most important towns in the country, at least temporarily? Surely Swansea can claim to be the 9th most important city in Britain following its 9th place finish in the Premier League.

Even in football, one of Manchester’s strongest claims to superiority, if we delve beneath the surface, it is clear that Birmingham more than rivals its strength. A survey that featured in the Telegraph in 2011 tallied the hometown of every top flight footballer since 1992, and found that Birmingham had produced 55 Premier League players, while Manchester could only boast 42.

Whether it is due to the abysmally poor standard of Birmingham-based soaps such as Doctors and Crossroads, or the lack of media centres in the Midlands, non-brummies increasingly doubt their second city status. This needs to change. Birmingham possesses all of the ingredients that make a great city, and is still improving, as its "Big City Plan" continues to transform the centre’s architecture. All it needs is more a little self-confidence, so chins up fellow Brummies - our time is now.

10 years on from its construction, Birmingham's Selfridges building has become an iconic landmark. Picture: Getty Images.
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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.