Taking inspiration from other parts of the world, as well as the UK, the city’s imaginative new blueprint for further developing its late-night economy could serve as a model for others, says MCA consulting editor Peter Martin.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham is in danger of being voted Britain’s most business-friendly politician.

It’s not the sort of epithet normally associated with former Labour cabinet ministers, but the way the mayor has put his confidence in Sacha Lord, a high-profile entrepreneur in the north-west’s music and late-night scene, to produce a blueprint for developing the out-of-hours economy in the region is refreshing and laudable.

Of course, you could argue there’s not much competition for the title of political business hero at the moment, with Boris Johnson’s administration happy to run roughshod over much of business’ opinion when it comes to Brexit, and the Corbynista wing of the Westminster Labour Party set on widespread nationalisation.

Recognising opportunities

Nevertheless, Burnham has allowed Lord, better known for being the founder of the annual Parklife festival and The Warehouse Project, which has been attracting clubbers to the city for more than a decade, to do his work – and most importantly has endorsed the new plan, which was unveiled at the end of last month.

Lord took on the role of Burnham’s night-time economy adviser in 2017, and has been consulting widely since then with interested parties right across the region’s 10 boroughs, from Wigan to Stockport, Rochdale to Trafford, and not just within the city centre authorities of Manchester and Salford.

Manchester’s central area is already renowned as the UK’s top destination for eating and drinking-out, not to mention live music, outside of London, but the emphasis on understanding the needs and opportunities in Greater Manchester’s less fashionable corners is an important feature of Lord’s plan.

As Burnham himself has said: “When I appointed Sacha Lord, I said I wanted us to build on this strong reputation and make our night life even better – for residents, visitors, and those who work in the sector. I want Greater Manchester to be one of the best places in the world to go out, stay out, work and run a business between the hours of 6pm and 6am.”

Diversification a key theme

The new blueprint for developing this vision of a sustainable and inclusive night-time economy has hospitality and leisure at its heart, but goes much wider than that in its ambition to deliver a joined-up and coherent approach, with diversification a key theme.

The plan highlights five key areas for action. It also has the virtue of being short and concise, running to just 24 pages. It’s not your usual verbose civil service tome, so it’s readable.

The report’s priorities focus on: safety, with Lord proposing the piloting of what he calls ‘safety havens’; transport connectivity; diversity of attractions; skills, careers and wellbeing; and regeneration and international reputation, where the success of Altrincham’s rejuvenation around its market is highlighted as an example of local success.

Improving transport

He looks to London, with TfL’s introduction of night Tubes, and Berlin, Milan and Munich with their night-time tram services, as models for improving transport and ensuring that connectivity, or lack of it, is not a barrier to growth.

When it comes to diversifying the night-time economy, the plan highlights Paris’s ‘Nuit Blanche’ programme – the city’s annual all-night arts festival. Lord says Greater Manchester should think along the same lines: “If we were in many European cities, like Stockholm, Tallinn or Barcelona, we could go to a gallery or museum late at night and still go for a meal or coffee afterwards.”

He says he has already engaged with a number of cultural organisations to test the potential for a series of ‘later night openings’ and with cafés, shops and restaurants to test the viability of staying open later.

Supporting innovators

Forging partnerships between the public and private sector is at the core of the blueprint, giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to grow businesses. Although there may be cynicism that a Labour politician really wants to support free enterprise, the mayor has not pulled away from backing Lord’s desire to support entrepreneurs and innovators to start, scale or relocate a night-time business to Greater Manchester, as long as they “maintain high standards for both staff and customers, and that workers are supported to have good, healthy jobs, with positive mental health and wellbeing”.

The plan proposes a voluntary Operators’ Standard, developed and supported by night-time operators which are committed to ensuring their employees have a safe, supportive and fair working environment, alongside a business advisory service for those wanting expert advice on starting, scaling or relocating.

The fact that entrepreneurial initiatives have already proved to be successful in turning around struggling areas is another factor in the unity of approach from Lord and Burnham, with Altrincham Market the prime example.

The Altrincham Market effect

In 1998, when the Trafford Centre opened, the impact was felt in town centres across the region. Altrincham, south of the city centre, was one of the worst affected, with among the highest shop vacancy rates in the country. But in eight years, the town has managed to cut the percentage of empty shops from 30% to 9.7%.

This is in no small part thanks to Altrincham Market, a renovation of the town’s Market Hall pioneered by entrepreneur Nick Johnson, who took on the challenge when Trafford Council put the opportunity to run the market out to tender, bringing a variety of local producers together, with food and drink, under one roof to create an offer unlike anything else available in Greater Manchester.

On the back of that success, many high-quality restaurants and bars have opened up around it and at the end of 2018 Altrincham won Best High Street in the UK. The market itself has also won the Observer Food Monthly Best Market Award.

Co-operation is vital

Manchester’s new blueprint can be a model for others. It is focused and not over-ambitious, at least in the number of its objectives, although the big challenge will be to co-ordinate all the parties involved. That’s why pulling off co-operation between public bodies and the business community will be vital. While Sacha Lord has done most of the spadework, much credit has to go to Burnham for taking the lead and being open-minded and realistic enough to let it happen.