Ever since the BBC announced in December last year that it was to move several of its key departments and 1,800 staff to Manchester, the London press have been putting the boot in. The digs to the ribs have been sly, and not too many have been overtly below the belt (if that’s possible), but they’ve been there for the sharp eyed observers to wince at nonetheless.
Very probably egged on by a small core of staff reluctant to relocate from the centre of the universe to the grim cultural desert that is ‘the North’, negative stories have seeped out to pollute the clear headed thought process behind the move.
There’s been suggestions of ‘expensive tokenism’, regarding both the move itself and relocation packages, muffled sniggering at the ‘Manchester workshops’ that Auntie’s been running for staff and downright delight when, upon London’s successful Olympic bid, the Beeb would naturally have to abandon the relocation of its sports department – as if they’ve never handled outside broadcasts before.
Such quietly insidious reporting could be attributed to a number of motives. Maybe they’re short of stories, maybe they can’t believe that any media and communications giant would honestly choose Manchester above London, or maybe they’re scared that, if it goes ahead and works well, they might end up having to make the move themselves one day.
Whatever the motives the stories have been there and, due to the persuasive power of the national press, they’ve got those of us on a local level rather damp browed about the possibility of an almighty u-turn. With that in mind we thought it was time to drive straight to Auntie herself and find out if her commitment really was on the wane.
“Absolutely not,” was the first, and very welcome, response from the mouth of Helen Martin, communications manager for the BBC North project. “Whatever you may have heard, the plans haven’t changed. There’s been a lot of speculation about the move, and that’s hardly surprising, but we haven’t made any other announcements since the original one, so our intentions are still exactly the same.
“There’s been an on-going feasibility study that’s been looking in to all the options, the costings, the choices of location and so on and that’s going before the various BBC boards and the governors at the end of this month (October).”
She continued: “We also have to wait and see what the level of the licence fee agreement is going to be, as that may well have an impact on the exact details of the plans.”
“I think it’s difficult to pre-empt what they (the boards and governors) are going to say and I don’t think there’s going to be a green light straightaway. But that said they’ve approved the plan in principal, and it is going to happen.”
The plans Martin’s referring to were well documented back at the time of the announcement, but they are well worth re-visiting some 11 months down the track. Basically, as part of a larger overall cost cutting initiative, the BBC is aiming to:
Ã¯ Establish a state-of-the-art BBC centre in
Manchester with \"brilliant career and creative
Ã¯ Move London-based Children\'s TV and Radio
– including CBBC and CBeebies – BBC
Sport, Five Live and Five Live Sports Extra,
New Media HQ, Research and Development
and Formal Learning departments to the new
Ã¯ Move an estimated 1,800 staff from London
Ã¯ Increase the amount of TV drama made
outside London from 30 per cent to 50 per cent during the
next Charter period.
The news couldn’t really be much better for those with a vested interest in making Manchester a potent media and creative epicentre. But it’s not going to happen overnight.
“With the time scale that we’re looking at the moves should start to take place in 2010, that’s the five year plan,” Martin imparted, before stressing: “If people are expecting the next stages of the plans and the detailed timescales to be revealed now they’ll be disappointed. The BBC is a publicly funded body so the Governor’s have to make sure we meet all the various value for money criteria with this move. It’s a major investment and we have to get it right from the outset.”
Bearing that in mind Martin thinks it unlikely that there’ll be any announcements prior to “spring 2006”, at which point the myriad of details will have been discussed and any larger hurdles hopefully hopped over.
One major point of discussion within the city itself has been the future of the BBC’s Oxford Road base and its capacity for expansion. Will it still be the focal point for the organisation’s presence in the city, or will a totally new home now be sourced (the word on the street, suggests eyes are cast towards the Piccadilly area)?
“Let’s just say that nothing’s being definitely ruled in or out at this stage,” Martin commented, with a tone that betrayed a smile. “We’re looking at various site options across the greater Manchester area and that’s part and parcel of the plans that will be going in front of the governors.”
If this appears to be a concerted effort at towing a sanitised, corporate line, it wasn’t too long before Martin began to let it slip slightly from her grasp.
“The current building is one of the options on the table, but is there enough scope to achieve everything that we want to there?,” she quizzed openly. “In London we’ve got a small media village that’s got a real buzz. I used to work in the building in Manchester and it’s a bit of a compact, enclosed, seventies looking kind of thing. We’ve got an opportunity to change that. To take forward the village feeling and transfer it to Manchester – to create that buzz. It would be a shame if we didn’t take that chance.”
If it’s a show of hands when it comes to choosing the final destination then, you get the feeling that Martin will be sitting on hers when the name Oxford Road is mentioned.
The ‘buzz’ and the ‘village’ concepts provoke entirely more effusive reactions when brought up for re-discussion. With them a new phrase “creative zone” lands on the radar with an almighty blip as she talks of “an area where it’s not just the BBC, but other independent companies too, grouping together, feeding off one another, exchanging ideas and growing.” It’s clear that she’s keen to stress that the move will bring benefits to both those within and without the organisation; from production companies and related industries, right down to the level of the man and woman in the street.
“The BBC wants to be a lot more open than we’ve been seen to be in past. I think traditionally we’ve often been seen as a kind of closed shop. The base in Manchester will allow us to open up the organisation, geographically and physically too. We want to help people get involved in broadcasting, help them with training, talk to students and get them excited about the opportunities available there.
“But this isn’t just about the BBC and it isn’t just about Manchester,” she continued. “We want the move to have a positive effect that ripples out across the entire North West and impacts on a positive level through other companies, other industries and the communities themselves.
“This is a very important move for us, that’s why we’re taking major departments and a lot of staff. It’s not just a change of scenery, it’s a change of emphasis for the BBC, and it’s a statement of intent.” Powerful words.
Finally, as if to dismiss any doubts that this, or any other, journalist might harbour about the scale and importance of the relocation, Martin laughs off the Olympic speculation (“the department will move before it happens”) and finishes with a tone of total conviction.
“This is a major part of the whole out of London movement, of opening the BBC up to more regions and more people. In the past we have talked about the possibility of doing more outside of London and now we’re putting our money very much where our mouth is. It’s one of the biggest visionary ideas we’ve ever had as an organisation and we will be going through with it.”