No, a new stadium is not “building back better”

So, American developers want to build a new stadium in Manchester on the Etihad campus. Predictably, they promise that it will be “sustainable”, but also that it will have ‘it’s own “supporting retail and leisure offer” including bars, retail concessions, pop-up retail spaces, hospitality spaces and lounges’. To further quote the article:

“We are pleased that in-depth studies, with industry trends, economic data and growth forecasts all interrogated, indicate that Manchester could support two successful arenas, even under the most conservative growth projections.”
“We are confident the plans we are presenting today are extremely beneficial for the city and will put Manchester on the global entertainment map for decades.”

Equally predictably, the owners of the MEN Arena, which is 25 years old this year, are opposed. Via a marketing agency they have contacted CEM, and I should imagine, other local groups, in an effort to drum up a “grass roots” opposition to the development. So what, you might ask? Let them build it, let the market sort out which is the best venue. Why is CEM taking the side of the owners of an existing entertainment venue? Why are you opposing the development of unused land, which would create jobs in construction and the ongoing running of the venue?

Because it’s the 21st century, and the Arctic is literally burning. Construction of such a venue will take many thousands of tonnes of concrete, glass and steel, with an immense carbon footprint all of its own. And that’s before it’s even running. Frittering away remaining carbon budget on this sort of white-elephant-in-waiting is the height of madness. How much walking and cycling infrastructure, or affordable low carbon housing, could we build for the same carbon budget?

The developers will be investing many millions in the construction, they will need to service that debt and expect make a profit on top – this is capitalism after all. Where will that money come from? Eye watering ticket prices, sales of identikit food in chain restaurants, trinkets and gewjaws in the “retail offer”. Very little of it, in relative terms, will remain in the Manchester economy. Sure, jobs will be created, but does the UK need more service industry jobs, even if they are paying “the Manchester living wage”? We need to be investing in training and skills for an energy constrained future, not assuming ever-increasing levels of consumption that our planet just cannot supply, without catastrophic impact on the life that calls it home (which includes us!)

The whole idea assumes a “return to normal”, that the coronavirus will fade away and leave us alone, and that economic growth will resume. The problem is that “normal” was an escalating crisis for millions; nothing about this development will change that. Even on its own terms, this does not look like a good economic bet: Intu, owners of the Trafford Centre, are close to insolvency. Casual Dining Group (owners of Cafe Rouge, Las Iguanas and Bella Italia restaurants) have called in the administrators. And all of this is before you consider the economic impacts of Brexit, especially given that the government has declined to extend the transition period. We will have to do much, much better than “more shops, more restaurants” if we want to survive the 21st century and beyond. True political leadership in Manchester would have the courage to stand up and say this, but we are woefully lacking in that right now.

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