Leading Article: Our great post-industrial theme parks, sorry cities

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The Independent Online
THE Free Trade Hall in Manchester is to be converted into a 290-bedroom, four-star hotel. Yesterday's news should come as no surprise. If not a hotel, then this florid piece of Victoriana - focus of Liberal Reform in the 19th century and home of the Halle Orchestra today - might have become a conference centre or . . . a conference centre. That was the fate of Manchester Central station when it became the G-Mex Centre a decade ago.

The Halle will move to the new International Concert Hall, where the acoustics should be better. The developer promises the revamped Free Trade Hall will 'make a statement of what modern Manchester is all about'. So what is modern Manchester all about? Mainly it is the story of a pivotal industrial city engaging the post-industrial world. King Cotton was deposed long ago. Last year the food sector of Manchester's economy was twice as valuable as industrial output, its retail sector twice as profitable as textiles.

Manchester is not alone. Many other cities have traded soot for superstores, hard graft for hotels and industrial craft for conference centres. Working Men's Libraries, Temperance Halls, Corn Exchanges and public baths have no meaning today. Warehouses have become luxury flats, wharves restaurants, chapels wine bars and docks are now theme parks. See how grandfather toiled and spun.

There is probably no alternative. Manchester and its ilk are competing with European cities as hosts to international sporting events, conferences and exhibitions. Good luck to Manchester then, but spare a thought for its old rivals, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield. There must (mustn't there?) be a limit to the number of English provincial cities whose post-industrial purpose is conferences, general hoop- la, spending rather than getting; cities which, because of their new role, grow more and more alike.