Was the BBC’s multi-million pound move to the ‘dark satanic mills’ of Salford’s MediaCityUK worth it?

By Reece Lawrence

The BBC is the iconic institution that has beamed news, documentaries and films into our homes for the last 91 years.

Television legends such as Sir David Attenborough, Kate Adie OBE and Sir Bruce Forsyth have graced the BBC Television Centre corridors in London for years.

But in 2004 the BBC first signalled its intention to transplant staff to Manchester and in March this year they wrapped up filming there good and started broadcasting from MediaCityUK.

There have been grumblings from many London-based employees who resented the idea of moving oop north and settling in Salford.

Stories have since emerged that a massive amount of money has been spent on travel expenses and housing allowances, with some arguing the move was merely an expensive box-ticking exercise.

So was the BBC’s decision to move to MediaCityUK worth it?

Hazel Blears, MP for Salford, seems to think it has and said the move had really put the area on the map but urged for more programme making to be done in the region.

“Prior to the BBC’s move, less than 7% of the programme-making budget was being spent in the north, but this has already risen to 10%,” she said.

“This is going in the right direction, but I want to see this figure continuing to rise.”

On the back of the BBC’s £180million investment, it is estimated that nearly £400million has been generated for the regional economy.

A recent report revealed £20million more was spent last year in the area compared to the year before and Ms Blears said other business benefitted from money spent in the area being recycled.

When the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) heard evidence from top BBC figures in June the panel’s chair, Margaret Hodge MP, was eager to stress the positive nature of the move in general, and congratulated the witnesses present on it.

“For a public sector project, this on the whole has got a good report,” she said. “You have managed the transfer of a lot of programmes into a new facility away from London efficiently.”

Ms Blears echoed her sentiments and was pleased that northern voices were often being heard on the TV or radio compared with the past.

However the project, which is estimated to cost around £1billion over 20 years, is not merely a tale of opening a wonderful new chapter in the BBC’s 90-plus year history.

As with any large-scale mission it has not been without its critics who rightly or wrongly are dissecting every aspect of the move in an attempt to ensure transparency and effective cost to the licence-fee payer.

It involved handing relocation packages to hundreds of BBC staff in a multi-million pound transition from London to the North West.

At the same time it is understood that several high-earning BBC personnel who opted to stay in London have their expenses paid for by fee payer s for travelling to and from the shows they work on.

It was reported that Radio 5 Live morning presenter Victoria Derbyshire flies from Heathrow to Manchester every day – though a BBC spokesman dismissed claims that the taxpayer was footing that bill.

Either way the disruptive atmosphere the matter of relocation has given birth to has stirred up some resentment as Anthony Fry, the BBC trustee, pointed out.

He said: “Any numbers of this sort of scale regarding individuals are going to cause at the very least raised eyebrows and, more than that, some aggravation amongst licence-fee payers.”

Ms Blears was sympathetic towards the stick the BBC had received.

“Any organisation which makes such a big move is going to want to keep as many of its staff as possible – because of their talent and experience, for reasons of continuity, and to protect output,” she said.

Paul Smith, Head of Communications at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, said when the move was announced in 2004, a lot of reaction was focused on staff’s supposed reluctance to move to the ‘dark satanic mills’ of Greater Manchester.

He suggested it was only over recent months, for the first time, the place was buzzing with activity and that the concept of MediaCity had finally become a reality.

He added: “It is a genuine creative hub, which has the potential – perhaps for the first time – to deliver a long lasting and sustainable creative economy in Greater Manchester.

“These economic benefits already go way beyond a much-needed shot in the arm to the estate agents from Greater Manchester’s leafy suburbs.”

Those estate agents however are perhaps not reaping as many benefits as they might.

The PAC hearing revealed 39 new recruits were from Salford with 254 from within Greater Manchester, with 10% of the BBC’s workforce on the site living in Salford itself.

The latter figure was dismissed as ‘quite low’ by Ms Hodge – suggesting more needs to be done to stimulate not just jobs but wider economic growth.

However Mr Fry said it was not the BBC’s job to act as the economic regenerator of any region.

Ms Blears said she had pushed another of the PAC witnesses, BBC director Peter Salmon, to have more jobs created for local people.

She added: “Salford University and Salford City College both now have bases at MediaCity, and that means there is real potential for more young people from Salford to be given opportunities.

“I will be keeping a close eye on this and whether it is reflected in the jobs figures.”

For the most part politicians and senior figures in the media have reflected warmly on the move despite the misgivings.

Mr Smith said the vast majority of small and medium enterprises in the creative sector who have previously dealt with the BBC spoke positively of the easier access they have to meeting with key decision makers within MediaCity.

He and Ms Blears both referred to companies such as the Greenhouse, Pie Factory and the Landing, and Mr Smith hoped they would grow and develop into major businesses in their own right.

Ms Blears said: “We need to ensure the site continues to be well used by local people, not just by employees, to help ensure that employers like the BBC and ITV become part of the community.”

Picture courtesy of David McKelvey via Flickr, with thanks

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