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.
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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