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Nothing stirs debate as much as the north-south divide (except perhaps the reliability of cricket’s hotspot technology). So my team mate Janan Ganesh doubtless expected a few bouncers when he came out to bat for London’s dominance of the country on the FT Comment page.
There was a googly too, a letter from Tim Hames of the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association. “It is the need to convince UK money [and, I would add, foreign money] to raise its sights beyond the M25 that remains a compelling issue,” he wrote. Many of his members have only just begun to do that.
Take the success of Wandisco, the software company. David Richards, chief executive, preferred his home steel city to Silicon Valley for unsentimental reasons. Sheffield has cheap accommodation, world-class workers happy with fewer share options and a secret weapon: the National Health Service, reducing the need to pay high health insurance costs. Nick Kelsall, CEO of Norcros, the listed maker of tiles and showers, moved its HQ from Bracknell to Wilmslow in the late 1990s. “I don’t see any need for a corporate to have a head office near London any more,” he says, with the group saving hundreds of thousands a year in rent and fees. Manchester airport is on the doorstep, London is two hours away by train, and the city has ample professional advisers and more diversions for senior staff than the Thames Valley offers.
Nevertheless, there has been a steady southward drift of companies pulled by new bosses who live there, the need to recruit non-executives rated by the City and an ever closer relationship with the capital’s regulators. The Co-operative Group, as Mancunian as drizzle, could be next. Euan Sutherland, its boss, recently recruited from Kingfisher, lives in Surrey and does not intend to move. The group has upgraded its London offices but says Mr Sutherland works two days a week in Manchester. However, its woes have sucked him and other executives into constant dialogue with the London-based Prudential Regulatory Authority.
The Leeds region, home to three of the five biggest building societies, had bid to host the Financial Conduct Authority, the retail regulator. It could have been equidistant between London and Edinburgh in a city with a wealth of retail financial experience. However, the politicians decided it needed to be under their nose. So while, as Mr Ganesh argues, the government cannot tilt the playing field, it could umpire more impartially. How about starting by using the airport capacity beyond Heathrow, rather than building another runway?
Cricket v football
I am a substitute for Brian Groom, who used this column to lament the competition between rugby league and cricket for junior players over the summer. A greater threat may be the omnipresence of football.
Many junior clubs already have the boots back on on a Saturday morning, having only packed them away at the end of June. With the Premier League returning this week, the Ashes and the climax of the county championship will be overshadowed once again, as will the Super League finale.
My youngest son’s cricket team has lost one member to rugby league but four have left for football. The only chink of light was hearing two Manchester football heroes in the BBC Test Match Special commentary box. Joe Hart, the City and England goalkeeper, revealed that he still popped down to Shrewsbury to watch Shropshire, the minor county team he played for at a junior level. Gary Neville, the retired United right back, said it was a shame football intruded so much.
Playing cricket in the Bolton League against men – including West Indian fast bowlers – toughened him up more than football, he said. But he was stopped from playing as a teenage United apprentice. Gone are the days when Ian Botham could turn out for Scunthorpe in winter and Somerset in summer. Or, like Arnie Sidebottom, play center back for United and open the bowling for Yorkshire.
Neville introduced listeners to a new term, the kind of pithy epithet with which the north of England is replete. To “dob” is when the bowler runs out the non-striker as he backs up, before the ball is delivered. More such terms, please, for journalists who need to weigh every letter.