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Evan Davis: BBC should 'give Salford a try'

Evan Davis
By Evan Davis
Today programme

MediaCityUK

Is the BBC's relocation to Salford, Manchester misguided social engineering or value for money?

I know I am in danger of breaking one of the finest traditions of the BBC by doing so, but I would like to say a good word about something the corporation is doing.

In moving several substantial departments (including children's television, Breakfast television, Sport and Radio 5 live) out of London to a new purpose built development in Salford called MediaCity:UK, I commend what my employer is up to.

I have been up there for the first time this week and I presented my half of the Today programme from a spacious new studio in the complex this morning.

Ian Brown performing at Glastonbury

And guess what? The world did not fall in. Several of our guests were interviewed down the line from London, but then on any normal London day, many of them are interviewed down the line from SW1. We get by.

I am not perhaps typical in my praise. The move north has led to quite a number of grumbles.

That is not altogether surprising as many staff are being asked to relocate or take employment elsewhere. That is not an easy choice for those with family and friends in London.

But not all the complaining is of the understandable, "why should I have to move?" variety.

A good deal of it comes out of the "why would you bother locating national broadcasting facilities in the regions?" file and it is this that has started to bug me.

I should say the Today programme is not moving to Salford (although for a short period of its history it was actually co-presented from Manchester and London).

I cannot be sure what my attitude would be if it did have to move. But at the very least, I am sure I can be as least as objective about the move as those who are relocating against their will.

And my motive for arguing in favour of Salford simply derives from an observation about the lopsided UK economy.

Victoria Wood

It is lopsided in the sense that London is approximately twice as productive as most of the rest of the country.

The officially-measured value of the output of the average Londoner in 2009 was £34,200 compared to about £17,263 in the north-west of England for example.

This makes London a national success, one certainly worth preserving.

But one plausible theory as to why it might be so productive is the tendency of the most talented people in our nation's newest industries to cluster near each other.

The top lawyers feel they can be most productive when they are near other top lawyers (i.e. in the city of London) rather than scattered around the country. Top bankers are the same, and so are media folk.

If this is the case a disproportionate amount of national talent is sucked into the capital of England. The best lawyers in Sunderland find that only by migrating south do they get a top job.

People in front of a BBC sign

We would not want to close that London economy down.

But it does imbalance the economy and quite possibly leaves other people mildly underemployed elsewhere. Their local job-creators have all fled to the capital. So it only seems right to nudge things a little to test how far clusters can be created elsewhere.

The anti-Salford arguments assert that the BBC should not be in the business of expensive "social engineering", that the quality of BBC programmes will decline and that it will not work anyway.

I would turn all three of these arguments on their head.

First, the BBC is in the business of expensive social engineering, it currently uses its tax income to create a large subsidised industry in London, the most crowded and expensive part of the country.

The argument simply has to be about the kind of social engineering the corporation promotes.

Secondly, it is true that the programmes might get worse.

It might be that Manchester cannot do television as well as London.

But even the hardened cynic would surely have to concede it is at least as likely the programmes will get better with some fresh non-London air blowing through them.

Even if they do not get better for the audiences that live in London, they might for the bulk of the country that doesn't.

But thirdly, I accept MediaCityUK may not succeed.

The BBC is planting a big tree around which a forest is expected to grow. Maybe it won't take root.

But crucially if not much good comes of it, not much harm will be done either.

The costs of relocation are substantial but they are partially offset by the fact that property rents around Salford are lower than in west London.

With a relatively low downside, it's surely worth giving Salford a try? The nation can afford to be a little adventurous. Or should we timidly assume the status quo is as good as it gets?




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