Sir Howard Bernstein reflects on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Manchester

Sir Howard Bernstein reflects on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Manchester

Manchester City Council leader says President Xi’s presence acknowledged that, collectively, the great cities of the north can compete with mega-cities

Sir Howard Bernstein and President Xi who recently visited Manchester

If you put all the articles written about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent historic visit to Manchester end to end they would probably stretch the length of the Great Wall.

The coverage, in Britain, China and elsewhere has been a fantastic opportunity to showcase the city and its role as a spearhead of innovation – from the pioneering industrial revolutionary spirit embodied in our own town hall to the innovation encapsulated in the University of Manchester’s groundbreaking research into graphene.

However, while the state visit was widely – and correctly – depicted as a great honour for Manchester, and an endorsement of the city’s emerging global status, one point was perhaps understated.

President Xi’s presence was not merely a recognition of the international resonance of the Northern Powerhouse idea as a brand.

It was also an acknowledgement doors are being opened by the concept underpinning it – that collectively the great cities of the north can compete with mega-cities.

Both Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council, and I have recently met business leaders and other decision-makers in China, and it is clear from those conversations that the international investment community is becoming increasingly interested in Manchester and the north of England as it wakes up to this potential.

The only way forward is to cast aside anachronistic and parochial rivalries and build on our individual specialisms while sharing our collective strengths, we can become more than the sum of our parts.

If the north of England was a country, it would have one of the 10 largest economies in the world.

It makes no sense when pitching for investment and jobs to an overseas audience to focus on smaller individual offers rather than punching our collective weight.

It’s a question of scale – the travel time from Manchester to Liverpool, Leeds or Sheffield is already only equivalent to travelling across a larger city.

With further infrastructure improvements, links will become even better.

Improved east-west transport links, both through the so-called HS3 scheme and road improvements, as well as improved north-south links through HS2, have the potential to create a single labour market.

I am not suggesting that cities could or should lose their individual identities or sprawl into each other.

What’s required is a change of mindset, where we recognise that, although we remain proud places in our own rights, we must also be able to think of ourselves as a virtual city of millions, an economic powerhouse.

In a world where more and more mega-cities are emerging, this combined clout is the key to remaining a significant player.

It’s what gives the Northern Powerhouse substance, so it’s not just a slogan.

For further proof that the concept of medium-sized cities working together as a larger unit is one whose moment has come, look to the Netherlands, where Amsterdam, Utrecht, The Hague and Rotterdam are collaborating as never before.

A similar process is also underway in Scandinavia.

Cities must still retain their distinctive strengths – in Manchester these include life sciences and research into advanced materials as well as the creative and digital sectors – but where these cross boundaries it makes sense to work on a larger canvas.

Look, for instance, at the work Greater Manchester is doing with Cheshire, which also has a significant life sciences cluster, to drive forward research and innovation.

Ultimately the proof of the Northern Powerhouse concept will be if the investment is forthcoming, particularly for transport, to really bring our great northern cities together.

The proof of the proposition will be measured in the scale of international investment we are able to attract.

The signs so far are encouraging.

Prime Minister David Cameron with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the City Football Academy in Manchester

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