In April, Manchester International Airport’s new Airport City site didn’t look like it was being prepped for a £650 million ($1 billion) development that could catapult the city into a new tier.
There were no noisy excavators plying the ground or trucks pouring cement, just two-foot partitions surrounding a meadow east of the M56 highway.
It was far from laying roads or foundations, but this step – trapping endangered amphibians – was just as crucial to getting the massive project off the ground.
“One great crested newt is capable of frustrating a whole scheme. It’s that protected, and we’ve collected hundreds of them,” said John Twigg, director of planning for Manchester Airports Group. “It’s a bit infamous really, certainly in the development industry.”
Construction officially began in May on Airport City North with a groundbreaking presided over by George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer. Over the next 10-15 years, the development will add 1.5 million square feet of office space, putting tenants just a five-minute walk from the terminals. South of the airport, plans call for a World Logistics Hub with 1.4 million square feet of warehouse space. All sites will be purpose-built for companies.
Finding new homes for newts was actually one of the project’s easier hurdles, as the airport has learned how to deal with European and British environmental regulators while expanding over the last 25 years.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped green advocates from challenging the new Airport City, and they haven’t been the only detractors. In recent weeks, a construction firm said it would consider legal action against Manchester Airports Group, alleging that the developer mishandled its bid.
But the project has plowed ahead, thanks in part to a unified vision among metro Manchester leaders. Boosters argue that building up the northwest of England is essential to diversifying and stimulating the country’s economy, which has been skewed toward London and the southeast.
It’s also a crucial time for aviation in the U.K. A national airports commission set up last year is considering a variety of proposals to expand capacity in the southeast. The deadline for submissions was July 19, and a diverse array of plans have emerged for the commission to consider before issuing its final recommendations in 2015.
Manchester Airports Group has skin in the game. Earlier this year it bought Stansted Airport in London, which has been talked about as a potential four-runway hub to rival Heathrow. (It has two runways now.)
Manchester is also proposing to the commission that more traffic should be routed through regional airports in Manchester and Birmingham, which already have excess capacity. Airport City is part of that business case.
Not From Scratch
The airports group’s ownership structure gives a clue as to how it was able to undertake a huge infrastructure project without the paralysis that often plagues the democratic process.
A private company, MAG’s shares are held by the 10 municipalities of greater Manchester, which have a history of working together to advance regional interests.
Michael Luger, dean of the Manchester University business school, an expert on regional economic development who at one time worked with aerotropolis guru John Kasarda in the U.S., said he has seen “enlightened and effective leadership” in Manchester since arriving from the University of North Carolina seven years ago.
Along with universities and connectivity, that’s a key ingredient for regional growth.
“One of the reasons that greater Manchester has outstripped say, Birmingham, and has become the second most dynamic region of the U.K. behind London is the history of joined-up leadership,” he told Global Atlanta, stressing the important role of proactive leaders like Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of the Manchester City Council.
The Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, which brings together the 10 authorities to make common policies, has also been a key driver.
It also helps that Airport City complements Manchester’s existing assets without having to create from scratch the engine that helps drive them, said Karen Campbell, who heads up the project for MAG.
“A lot of airports are trying to do it from start to finish. They’re actually trying to build an airport plus a city around it. It’s a huge ask,” Ms. Campbell told Global Atlanta during an April interview at the MAG offices.
For Manchester, the assets are already there, she said. More than 300 companies are already on situated on the airport’s footprint, along with ample hotels and transport links, she said. =
Ms. Campbell had just returned from the Global Airport Cities conference in South Africa. What she heard there validated her view that Manchester’s project was better positioned than those of newcomers to the aerotropolis game.
For one, Airport City fits into the U.K.’s vision for repositioning its economy and spreading growth around the country.
The development is to attract 15,000 new jobs to Manchester’s airport area and has been designated as an enterprise zone. The 24 nationally designated zones allow companies to get 100 percent tax relief up to £275,000 over five years. They also enable streamlined government planning and infrastructure development.
Airport City also plans to build on Manchester’s strengths as a hub for health research and business. The Manchester Medi-park, to be collocated with a university hospital near the airport, is to provide access to laboratory and office space for life sciences companies developing drugs or medical devices.
Airport City is just one of a few massive developments over the past few years aimed at making Manchester shine.
The cradle of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, Manchester was an early bastion of mechanization, sending textiles all over the world through the Port of Liverpool just down the Mersey River.
To give ships better access to factories, the city built an elaborate canal system, and one of the first passenger railroads in the world ran between Manchester and Liverpool. Old brick warehouses around the city pay homage to that bygone era, which gradually devolved into urban blight in the 1970s and ’80s.
But Manchester hasn’t taken it lying down.
“There’s just something in sort of the Manchester spirit if you go back hundreds of years, it’s always sort of had that entrepreneurial, radical, ‘”Let’s do things that other people don’t do, let’s be bold, let’s be brave,'” said Mr. Twigg.
Now, that spirit is driving momentum for reshaping the city into a hub for advanced manufacturing, creative services and regional corporate headquarters, especially those of financial services firms like The Royal Bank of Scotland.
Besides plans for Airport City, there’s MediaCityUK, a huge live-work development with film and music studios that have drawn a cluster of creative companies to the Salford area.
The development is anchored by BBC North. The public broadcaster’s decision to move some operations out of its cramped London offices was relatively easy: It was provided state-of-the art facilities at favorable rates, said Sao Bui-van, a BBC spokesman.
The BBC doesn’t see Airport City as helping MediaCityUK directly. Those BBC employees who commute do so by train or Manchester’s new Metrolink tram system (currently being extended to the airport). The BBC’s international reporting divisions are still based in London, so they’ll use the likes of Heathrow and Gatwick airports to leave the country.
But the airport enhances Manchester overall, which makes it more attractive for potential BBC employees, Mr. Bui-van said.
More Connected than Heathrow?
Of course, Airport City is more than a strictly local asset. It’s a play for prominence on the global stage, a move to exert Manchester as one of Europe’s primary business magnets in its own right.
The airport’s 20 million passengers pales in comparison to Heathrow’s 70 million or Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s 95 million, but it does serve 190 destinations, connecting around the U.K. and to more than 50 other countries.
Heathrow has more international destinations, but Manchester reaches more cities overall.
Delta Air Lines Inc., for instance, offers a nonstop flight from Atlanta to Manchester that has ferried more than 100,000 travelers across the Atlantic over the last five years, filling more than 90 percent of seats each year, according to Nadia Clinton, a Delta sales manager in the U.K.
Manchester is looking to encourage more of these long-haul routes, capitalizing on the connectivity of its companies and universities.
Manchester Airport chief Charlie Cornish was recently named head of the Manchester-China Forum, a business development initiative, presumably because the airport has been a vocal proponent of gaining nonstop flights to China.
For many companies, the existing connectivity works well enough.
In an ideal world, PZ Cussons Commercial Director Christopher Davis would like to see a flight to Lagos, Nigeria, where the company has had operations for more than a century and now manages its West African sales of food, appliances and personal products.
“For where our businesses are, we’re pretty well serviced, and the frequency of the service is very good as well,” Mr. Davis told Global Atlanta.
PZ Cussons in 2010 consolidated its international and U.K. head offices in a new building next to the airport, within the enterprise zone and adjacent to the Airport City North site.
While construction of a tram line that will run in front of the building has caused a temporary inconvenience, the progress is welcome.
“We’re obviously positively disposed to (Airport City) because for us it puts Manchetser on the map. We’re probably the second largest public company in the area, so it helps in terms of the company you keep,” he said.
For Mr. Twigg, the MAG planning director, the most exciting transit developments at the airport are only partly about the planes.
Standing in the current train station, which already handles 4 million passengers per year, he beams like a proud father as he describes how the multimodal hub will come into its own. Many ideas have been in place since before the Terminal 2 expansion in 1993, but economic realities have hindered their implementation.
“The pace of growth has dictated the pace of development, but we’ve always had that long-term vision about what we need to do and then you can start to bring those pieces together as demand picks up,” he said.
The station already boasts a simple, stratified layout. “Things on rails” – regional trains and the local Metro Link under construction – come in on the bottom level. “Things on wheels” – long-range and commuter buses – arrive just above on a second level. A walkway at the top called Skylink connects air travelers with Terminals 1, 2 and 3.
Mr. Twigg envisions even more integration with the airport, including baggage check-in counters greeting travelers when they get off the train and tram.
“The idea is that customers assigners that come on public transport get the easiest, smoothest, slickest service,” he said.
But the hub has value even for those who aren’t flying. It will especially benefit companies locating in Airport City, he said, pointing to a parking lot adjacent to the station that will disappear as new buildings begin to sprout.
“Airport City was always based on how do we exploit the connectivity that the airport offers for businesses that need that connectivity? So it’s going to be businesses that need to operate globally but recruit locally,” Mr. Twigg said.
For the airport and the city, Airport City is a win-win, he said.
“As the airport grows more successful that helps the city grow. As the city grows that makes the airport more successful, and we’ve always had that sort of relationship with the city authorities that there’s a benefit for us all in this.”
To read more about Airport City developments around the world, particularly in Atlanta, visit Global Atlanta’s new portal athttp://airportcity.globalatlanta.com.
For more information on Manchester’s Airport City, visit www.airportcity.co.uk.