Monday, 21 May 2012

Ten years on, what is the legacy of the Commonwealth Games for Manchester?

David Conn's excellent article on the history of Manchester City since they last won the football league provides one of the best accounts of what the club's success means to its fans and also the vast amount of money thrown at the project by its new owners in Abu Dhabi. Apparently City's move to the 48,000 capacity City of Manchester Stadium in the summer of 2003 was a "crucial factor" in Sheikh Mansour's decision to buy the club five years later. If this is the case then we could argue that City's recent success (winning the FA Cup last year and the Premier League this year) and the sense of excitement in anticipation of success to come is the greatest legacy of the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The Games were awarded to Manchester in November 1995, after failed bids to host the 2000 Olympics (in September 1993) and the 1996 Olympics (in September 1990), and along with the IRA bomb of June 1996, they are seen as having played a major role in the city's subsequent regeneration. Despite not being taken that seriously as a major tournament in its own right, the Commonwealth Games (coinciding with Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee year and coming 25 years after the Sex Pistols had released Nevermind the Bollocks… Here's the Sex Pistols) turned out to be hugely important for Manchester, as has been well-documented. Looking at their legacy ten years on, we can't help comparing it with the London Olympics due to take place this summer (will it have the same impact on London as the 2002 Games had on Manchester?). But we should also look at the background to the Games and the political environment that allowed them to happen in the way they did.

The two failed Olympic bids and the successful Commonwealth Games bid all took place during the long period of Tory rule in Westminster (mainly during John Major's government but also towards the end of Margaret Thatcher's). So whilst Manchester's renaissance coincides with the New Labour era (1997-2010), the groundwork was all laid during the Tory era (1979-1997). As we can see in the diagram on the right Manchester City Council was Labour-controlled throughout both periods and one of the main factors in Manchester's renaissance was the ability of its civic leadership to work with whoever was in power, regardless of ideological differences. This is in marked contrast with Liverpool, where the Militant Tendency gained a foothold on the City Council, which they used as a battleground against the government. (Neil Kinnock made his famous speech to the Labour party conference in October 1985 in which he denounced a Labour council "hiring taxis to scuttle round the city handing redundancy notices to its own workers.") Of course we shouldn't forget the impact of Factory Records and New Order, whose funnelling of profits into the iconic Hacienda nightclub played a remarkable role in Manchester's transformation from its opening in 1982 to around the period when the city was bidding for the Olympics.

The Barcelona Olympics in 1992 are seen as the hallmark for a tournament's ability to regenerate a postindustrial city and this was certainly around the time Manchester began to visualise itself as a future "Barcelona of the North." In terms of the scale and global prestige of the event, the Commonwealth Games are no match for the Olympics, but the 2002 Games took place at an exciting time for the city. The damage cause by the 1996 IRA bomb was used to secure further investment in the city centre (at a time when the threat of the Trafford Centre, opened on the outskirts of town in September 1998, loomed large). This was symbolised in the redevelopment of Cathedral Gardens and in Ian Simpson's Urbis building (completed in 2002), but also further afield in Piccadilly Gardens for example. In October 1997, the Guggenheim Museum was opened in Bilbao, creating another model for urban regeneration. Designed by Lou Gehry, the building (located in a previously rundown, industrial part of the city) was instantly hailed as a landmark piece of contemporary design, turning Bilbao into a must-visit global tourist destination. Manchester took note, with work on the Lowry in Salford Quays having begun in June 1997. Outline planning permission for the Imperial War Museum North (IWMN) was granted in October 1997, the same month as the opening of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. The Lowry was opened in 1999 at a cost of £106m. Building work began on the IWMN (pictured above) in January 2000. Designed by Daniel Libeskind (set to become one of the biggest names in contemporary architecture), it cost £28.5m and was opened in July 2002, shortly before the Commonwealth Games began.

On 26th May 1999, Manchester United beat Bayern Munich with two late goals to win the Champions League final at the Nou Camp in Barcelona. The club, whose ground is a stones throw away from the Lowry and Libeskid's IWMN, had already won five of the first seven Premier Leagues (this would later become seven of the first nine) and featured young British stars such as Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Paul Scholes. So the Commonwealth Games arrived on a wave of optimism (sporting, economic, architectural, political) and provided Manchester with the showcase it long needed and been campaigning for. Consequently it's difficult to separate the legacy of the Games with the transformation that took place at around the same time. The one key factor thoughout was the City of Manchester Stadium (now the Etihad). This had been planning stages right from the failed Olympic bids of 1990 and 1993. Construction began in January 2000 (at the same time as Libeskind's IWMN) on a brownfield site in East Manchester. Opened in time for the Games, it cost around £112m and was afterwards converted from an athletics venue to a football stadium. Man City moved in just before the start of the 2003-2004 season and were taken over by the Abu Dhabi group five years later. City's recent success in the league can therefore be traced back to the co-operation between a forward-thinking Labour council in Manchester and a supportive Conservative government in Westminster back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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