Evan Davis’ Mind the Gap programmes have intensified the debate about whether continued rapid growth of London is good for the UK economy, and what can be done to tackle the problem of the north-south divide.
In a recent post I argued we need to move away from a London versus the rest of UK narrative. London an asset to the UK economy. But we cannot rely on the “sea slug” theory of regional development with London, as described by its Mayor Boris Johnson, “like a gigantic undersea coelenterate that takes in and then expels.” If the UK is to grow to its full potential it needs to grow together. The cities and city regions outside London could contribute more to national growth, but need greater powers and investment to do so. But how?
In an interesting article last year, Professor Henry Overman of the LSE argued that the problem with the UK economy was not that London is too big, but the second tier cities are too small. He argued that these cities lack the scale and critical mass to needed to compete with London. This is because of the phenomena of agglomeration, whereby in the knowledge economy, high value, knowledge intensive economic functions such as innovative businesses, universities and high-level government functions tend to cluster in the centres of large cities. Urban scale is important because these functions need access to large workforces and markets.
Simon Jenkins argues in an article in the Guardian that the UK should pick Manchester as its second city, and concentrate investment and growth there at the expense of Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle and so on. But I think Jenkins argument is flawed.
Manchester clearly is a huge economic asset to the UK economy. Its airport is a genuine global gateway. The quality of its economic leadership is undeniable. It has huge economic strengths in professional services, digital, media and science.
The reality is that none of the North’s cities are of sufficient scale or significance to register on any global list of major cities. Jenkins appears to base his argument on the success of Manchester’s football teams, the coolness of its urban apartments, and its undoubted brilliance at city marketing. These are all important factors. But other cities have important strengths. Leeds is experiencing the UK fastest private sector jobs growth, is the largest UK concentration of financial and business services jobs outside London, and has world class capabilities in data analytics and digital health. Sheffield has hugely important assets in advanced manufacturing, based around the AMRC. Leeds, Newcastle, York and Liverpool, as well has Manchester, are developing major science and innovation districts.
There is also a danger that Whitehall thinks that in funding a project in Manchester, it has ticked the box marked “the north” (think Commonwealth Games, Metrolink, BBC relocation, Northern Hub). There has to be a case for other cities in the North to benefit from similar grand projects, although clearly there is an onus on them to make a compelling case.
But the most important reason Jenkins and Overman is flawed is that the problem is not that the UK’s second tier cities and city regions are too small; because of poor transport links they are not connected well enough. The UK is a small country. Major cities and city regions in the midlands and the north are close to each other. Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester are less than 40 miles apart. But poor transport links – slow rail journey times and congested roads – mean that these city region economies are separate functionally. They have separate travel to work areas, business and knowledge networks, and commercial markets that individually lack scale and critical mass. Less than 1% of the population of Leeds or Manchester commutes daily between the two cities.
In contrast London sits at the centre of a vast functional highly networked economic area that Professor Sir Peter Hall has called the “London and South East Mega City Region”. This covers an area with a population of around 19 million within roughly an hour rail travel time of London.
A 70 mile rail journey from Leeds to Nottingham via Sheffield links three city regions with a combined population of 6million and 3 million jobs. But the rail journey will take almost two hours at an average speed of 36mph. Between Leeds and Birmingham (2 hours rail journey time) the combined city region populations are 8.5 million with over 4 million jobs. Better transport links could create a better-integrated and more powerful economic zone. HS2 will link Leeds with Birmingham via Sheffield and Nottingham in under an hour.
Improved trans-Pennine rail links can have a similar effect in the corridor between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull. In particular better links between Leeds and Manchester would provide a huge economic boost. That is why Evan Davies, claims that Hebden Bridge, located between Leeds and Manchester, should in fact be the UK’s second city. It is not a literal suggestion, but he does make a serious point:
“it is a place that allows both those cities to be treated as next door. And maybe therein lies some kind of answer to the critical mass of London. It’s not a second city called Hebden Bridge, but a super-city that tries to turn the great cities of the north into one large travel-to-work area.”
I agree with Davis. We need better transport links within and between the city regions of the midlands and the north to create the economic scale and networks to enable them to fulfill their combined economic potential.