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No prizes for coming third: The fight to be Britain's second city

Birmingham's position as understudy to London, undisputed for decades, is being challenged by Manchester. Paul Vallely reports

The key fact of which you need to be in possession is that Digby Jones – or Baron Jones of Birmingham to give him his due style – is an Aston Villa fan. Only that could explain both the timing and the piquancy of his announcement yesterday.

Lord Jones, an ex-Business and Foreign Office minister, not to mention former Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry, lit some blue touch paper by asserting that his home town is in "grave danger" of losing its status as the nation's ''second city'' to Manchester.

He was speaking to Radio 5 Live on the morning that the first 100 of the station's employees moved from London to Manchester; the start of an exodus which will see 5,000 BBC employees including BBC Breakfast, 5 Live, Match of the Day and all of the BBC's sports, religion, children's and learning output – together with large chunks of light entertainment and current affairs – moving into MediaCityUK. The complex in Salford Quays will, by the end of 2011, be the biggest media hub in Europe.

But though the business magnate compared the two cities' universities, transport systems, civic leaderships and workers' skills levels – "Birmingham has almost the lowest skills base in the country" – it was clearly the football which most riled him.

Last weekend Manchester United, one of the richest and most successful football clubs in the world, broke the record for finishing top of the league with a 19th title. And Manchester City picked up the FA Cup. By contrast, supporters of Birmingham's largest football club, Aston Villa, have to go back 25 years for their last major success, winning the European Cup. And Birmingham City are facing the indignity of relegation.

Debates as to which is Britain's second city are guaranteed to get provincial blood boiling. Officially no such title exists, but everyone is keen to claim the crown because it helps to market a city, particularly abroad.

In medieval times, York was the obvious candidate and, up until the 18th century, Norwich was the nation's second-largest city thanks to its status as a major trading centre. When the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed in 1801, the laurel went to Dublin before passing in the form of "Second City of the British Empire" to Glasgow for much of the Victorian era.

There were always other pretenders, not least Liverpool. In the early 19th century, an extraordinary 40 per cent of the world's trade passed through its docks, much of it financed through the Atlantic Slave Trade.

But as the Industrial Revolution proceeded apace Birmingham laid claim to the crown. It was not just at the geographical crossroads of the nation, it was its engineering heart in an age of manufacture. It is still Britain's second biggest city, and the largest local authority in Europe, with a population of just under a million. That's more than twice the size of Manchester, which also ranked below Glasgow, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Edinburgh and Bristol at the 2001 census.

But size, as Washington DC reminds us, is not everything. (The populations of the US capital and Manchester are similar.) Though the capital of the Midlands, with its own Royal Ballet and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, in the glory days of Simon Rattle at any rate, has given Manchester's Hallé and BBC Philharmonic something to think about, the cultural crown resides resolutely in the northern city.

Oasis, The Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays and Joy Division pretty much trump Birmingham's Jamelia, Black Sabbath and UB40. Coronation Street has rightly outlived Crossroads. Manchester has hosted the Commonwealth Games. The third Manchester International Festival, which opens next month, has already built a reputation for exciting productions and cutting-edge arts events.

The University of Manchester has a global reputation with 25 Nobel Prize Winners; the University of Birmingham's website lists just eight. Some of the most important scientific discoveries of the modern age have been made in Manchester. Not to mention the über-cool Professor Brian Cox.

Manchester has the busiest airport outside London with double Brum's passengers, and is an international hub to the Middle East and the United States. MediaCityUK is set to expand to 15,000 jobs with 1,000 businesses when it is fully developed. As long ago as 2005 Management Today magazine was saying that Manchester was gaining the edge in housing, property, retail, leisure and professional services. And last year Manchester city centre became second only to London for new office building take-up, with almost a 1 million square feet occupied in the year.

Digby Jones, in a previous apostacy, in 2008, declared there was in Britain "no better place than the north-west in terms of having a diverse manufacturing base, whether it's engineering manufacturing at Rolls-Royce, automotive manufacturing at Bentley or pharmaceuticals manufacturing at AstraZeneca". How it pained a Brummie to admit that, he conceded.

Of course the verdicts of individuals can be fickle. John Prescott, when deputy prime minister, declared Birmingham second city when he visited the Bullring in 2003, only to deftly transfer the accolade to Manchester on a visit there two years later.

But opinion polls now consistently favour the more northerly city. In 2002 Mori found that Manchester had taken the lead, mostly strongly among 25 to 34-year-olds. By 2007, 48 per cent of the population said, without being prompted with city names, that Manchester was in their view the nation's second city – just 40 per cent cited Birmingham.

Such views are, of course, not unanimous. Ask a Liverpudlian which is Britain's second city and you will probably get the answer London.

In the metropolis, by contrast, such questioning would not raise the temperature a millidegree. London, with its population of 7.6 million and its political, economic and cultural dominance, so hugely overshadows everywhere else in the UK that arguments about a second city feel like a playground squabble.

Except when it comes to football, of course. On that Manchester, with the ineluctable momentum of United's tradition and the bonanza billions of City's oil-sheik owner, looks determined, for the immediate future at any rate, to remain second to none.

Birmingham or Manchester: Which do you think deserves the title of Britain's second city? Vote in our poll

Manchester: 'The world's first modern city'

Granted city status 1853
Population 483,800 (Metropolitan area: 2,240,230)
Motto 'Concilio et labore' ('By wisdom and effort')
GDP £52.4bn (2008 est.)
Unemployment 12 per cent
History Shot to prominence in the early 19th century through the textile industry. Scene of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819.
Brainpower University has produced 25 Nobel prizewinners. Famous thinkers include Friedrich Engels, Ernest Rutherford, Alan Turing – and Brian Cox.
Culture Gave the world Oasis, The Smiths, the Happy Mondays, the Hacienda club; Coronation Street; LS Lowry - and the Lowry Centre; the Halle Orchestra; Bridgwater Hall; the Manchester Apollo; and Salford Quays, future home of much of the BBC.
Cuisine "Curry mile" in Rusholme.
Sport Home of Premier League champions and FA Cup winners. Hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2002.

Birmingham: 'Workshop of the world'

Granted city status 1889
Population: 1,028,701 (Metropolitan area: 3,683,000)
Motto 'Forward'
GDP £55.5bn (2008 est.)
Unemployment 12.9 per cent
History One of the first great industrial cities; also notable for its support of 19th-century political reform.
Brainpower University has produced just eight Nobel laureates. Famous thinkers include Joseph Priestley, Francis Galton and James Watt.
Culture Home city of WH Auden, Black Sabbath, Duran Duran, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, the National Exhibition Centre and the O2 Academy.
Cuisine Famous for its Balti houses, and hosts three Michelin-starred restaurants.
Sport Failed in its bid to host the 1992 Olympics. In football, Aston Villa are a shadow of their former self; Birmingham City are fighting relegation.