Broadcasting: The future is northern

The creation of a media city at Salford Quays - with the BBC among its potential residents - will transform the area and make it the biggest broadcasting and creative hub outside London. Raymond Snoddy reports.
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The old pie factory at Salford Quays may have seen better days, but it could hardly have a more appropriate address for its future role - Broadway. The building, now being stripped internally, is envisaged as a new centre for independent television producers, part of an ambitious plan to turn a 200-acre site in Salford into Britain's digital media city of the future.

Apart from its potential, Quays Point is already adjacent to a world-class building - the Lowry Museum - and opposite the Imperial War Museum North. Twenty minutes' walk away across the Manchester Ship Canal looms Old Trafford, the Manchester United stadium.

Salford is hoping to benefit from the northern exodus of the BBC - and that this will bring other media, communication and educational institutions to Salford Media City.

The BBC governors meet on 15 June to decide whether the five departments due to move north by 2010, including BBC Sport, Children's BBC and most of Five Live, should go to Salford or the other shortlisted destination, a new site close to its existing headquarters in central Manchester.

One of the powerful voices rooting for Salford is MIT professor Michael Joroff, a specialist in the creation of media cities around the world who is advising the Central Salford Urban Regeneration Company.

Apart from the space and relatively inexpensive housing, Joroff particularly likes the waterfront at Salford Quays. "In most cities the waterfront is the hottest property around," he says. "Salford could be one of the best places in the world. It could be a terrific area, better than London."

In the 1980s and 1990s science cities were built around the world but since then there has been greater specialisation. Singapore's One North concentrates on the life sciences. The main focus of Copenhagen's Crossroads is information, computers and technology, while Helsinki's Arabiaanta is devoted to the industrial arts.

"It is the building of organisational connections that is one of the keys to a media city project," argues Joroff. "The big aim is to build a human and organisational capability that will carry the companies and the people of the region into a strong competitive future in 20 to 30 years." The hope is that clusters of media companies often sharing facilities and supporting services will lead to a cross-pollination of ideas and creativity.

Joroff's immediate aim is much less grandiose - to try to persuade the BBC to turn its back on central Manchester which at the outset seemed the most likely plan. "A lot of people from the BBC probably still see Salford as a rat-infested wharf where you will get bashed over the head. Look at it. It ain't no garbage dump."

He believes Salford Quays has four main advantages which should help it to create a media city - the physical space to do it, the long-term support of a single developer, the commitment of the Salford team to the media city concept, and the fact that Salford has managed to come "from ground zero in the BBC race six months ago and pulling even".

The entire 200-acre site is owned by Peel Holdings, which also owns both water and waterfront because they bought the Manchester Ship Canal more than 20 years ago. It is also the company behind the Trafford Centre in Manchester.

"Like a shopping centre you need anchors and magnets," the MIT professor explains.They're smart developers. They'll fill it up but the BBC is the interesting play,"

The hope of the Salford regeneration groups is that if the BBC decides to move the short distance to Salford Quays, ITV will decide to cash in on its central Manchester headquarters and move there too, creating the most important broadcasting hub outside London.

The person leading the battle to persuade the BBC to move is well placed for the task. Felicity Goodey, who runs the private-public Salford Urban Regeneration Company, spent 28 years working for the corporation. A former industrial and political correspondent, she also presented File on Four and is now a director of Unique Communications, the independent producer. It was Goodey who led the team that put together the package to design, finance and open the Lowry Museum. Together the two museums attract four million visitors a year.

Goodey believes that for its northern headquarters the BBC has to choose between building an old-style, super-duper network production centre, or being seen "as a major catalyst in driving forward the new media industries in a digital age".

The BBC's decision and any commitment to a future media city in Salford is, however, still problematical. The corporation may delay a decision until there is a licence-fee settlement in the autumn before committing to a £400m move north.

There are even worries that if the BBC gets less money than it was expecting, the move to the North could be cancelled or postponed indefinitely. The Government, however, appears committed to the move of significant broadcasting departments outside London.

"I think we have an extremely strong case. Whether we are in front I don't know but the BBC is very taken with the idea," says Goodey, who adds that by the end of the year there will already be 3,500 flats and small houses in the area. There are also plans for a tram link and a new bridge across the canal.

And apart from the pie factory on Broadway and other light industrial buildings, 36 acres have already got planning permission. It may be little more than cleared ground at the moment but Goodey's vision for 2010 and beyond is very clear.

"Salford Media City will be the broadcasting hub outside London and it will I think be one of the most serious media and creative hubs in Europe."