BBC staff can expect a warm welcome up the Mancunian Way

With a BBC exodus from London to Manchester imminent, Ciar Byrne explores what awaits them
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The Independent Online

A young woman from the south finds herself transported to a grim northern town and learns to love the strange city and its inhabitants. The BBC's adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South reached its romantic conclusion just two days before Mark Thompson announced that 1,800 employees in children's television, sport, Radio Five Live, new media, research and development and learning must decide whether to move to Manchester or lose their jobs. Was there a subliminal message in the costume drama for those in the affected departments?

Staff, who have been given just 18 months to make the life-changing decision, are understandably concerned. As one employee in BBC Sport who has spent most of his working life in London says: "It's not that it's Manchester. It's just that it's potentially a colossal upheaval. My family and all my friends are down here. It means huge change, and for what?"

Peter Salmon, the BBC's director of sport, who is heading up the strategy, explains: "We're not just looking at Manchester, but the whole of the north. It feels like the north is much more joined up as a media region than it once was. We want to build a honey pot centred on Manchester, where there's already a tradition of journalism and drama and current affairs."

As well as being ideally placed in the middle of the UK, it is Manchester's broadcasting heritage that has won it the status of the BBC's second city. "There's a tradition of programme-making from Coronation Street to Cold Feet, via World in Action, and Mrs Merton," says Salmon, who used to work for Granada, where most of these programmes were made.

Visiting BBC Manchester's shabby headquarters on Oxford Road, one of the main thoroughfares into the city centre, it is difficult to share Thompson's vision of a thrusting media hub of the future. But talks with the city council and regional development agencies about building a new broadcast centre are well under way - the entire cost of the move is estimated at £500m - and those already who already work for BBC Manchester are evangelical.

"In Manchester there's huge potential to develop a major centre," says Ruth Pitt, creative director of documentaries, religion and ethics. "It's a good choice geographically because it's in the centre of the British Isles. And culturally it's got a very young profile, a huge student population."

Alan Bookbinder, the head of the BBC's religion department, which moved up to Manchester a decade ago, believes it is vital to achieve a "critical mass of talent". "We need more people coming into television who think of the north as a place to make their lives and careers. The gravitational force to London is huge and we need another gravitational force that keeps people here."

Bookbinder believes that the experience of the religion department provides a valuable lesson for the move to come. "There was for a while a creative loss. A lot of people jumped ship and it took quite a while for the department to rebuild itself. That's unlikely to happen this time, because it's on a much bigger scale and people are going to see the BBC really means it.

"A lot of people who have come here have found huge personal benefits - quality of life, housing, schools, environment. There are lots of things about living up here that are much better than London."

The hope is that the BBC's commitment to Manchester will foster a vibrant independent production sector. At present there is only a handful of successful indies in the city, notably the drama production company Red, run by Nicola Shindler, whose credits include Queer as Folk, Clocking Off and The Second Coming. "There will be a stronger, bigger workforce and a bigger pool of people to work for. Hopefully it will mean more talent stays up here," says Andrew Crutchley, Red's managing director.

The current edition of the BBC's in-house journal Ariel devotes its centre spread to workers who have already made the transition to Manchester. Nick Holden, a researcher who moved up from London 10 years ago, admits he was surprised to find that vegetarian food in M&S was labelled "vegetable accompaniments" and that people dressed up to go shopping at the weekend.

These days, with a revamped city centre boasting branches of Harvey Nichols and Selfridges, Mancunians remain as fashion conscious as ever, but BBC staff pondering the move should rest assured that vegetarians are now catered for.