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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen