The UK’s Second City: Manchester or Hebden Bridge?

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.


About citypolicy

Interested in what makes cities and regions dynamic, competitive and sustainable. I blog in a personal capacity. I work for Arup as Director, Cities Advisory. I was previously with Leeds City Council as Chief Economic Development Officer.
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4 Responses to The UK’s Second City: Manchester or Hebden Bridge?

  1. Tom
    I enjoyed reading this:well written and argued.Connectivity between northern metros is key to long term economic success.Though,of course, other determinants of competitive advantage are also of great importance arn’t they? We don’t just want better connectivity between poorly performing places.

    • citypolicy says:

      I agree Mike. Factors such as skills levels, innovation, quality of place are also important. The Overman study for the Northern Way estimated that improvements in skill levels in Leeds and Manchester would provide an economic boost similar to that from a 20 minute reduction in rail journey times between the two cities.

      My point is that if you believe the Zipf’s Law theory of economic development (and it is worth saying there are examples of fast-growing small cities) the fact the UK is a small country provides an opportunity to connect better cities and city regions that are geographically close, but functionally separate.

  2. MutatisMutandis says:

    There’s a spectacular non-sequitur at the heart of this whole debate, though. Zipf’s law is a mathematical law of statistical distribution – it suggests how you’d expect city sizes to be distributed across a scale under certain conditions of randomness. It’s a positive rather than a normative theory though. Nowhere is there any evidence that I’ve seen to suggest that there is some sort of economic penalty to be paid for diverging from this distribution, there’s certainly no suggestion of this in Overman’s paper that Evan Davis seems to have based his argument on. Yet without this premise, the conclusion that Birmingham and Manchester are under-performing because they are too small has no basis whatsoever in the argument.

    Add to this the fact that the empirical evidence could equally be used to suggest those cities are under-performing because they are too big, rather than too small. There are smaller cities than Birmingham and Manchester doing much better – Bristol, Nottingham and most notably Edinburgh, whose economic performance is extremely close to that of London, and until it had the bad luck of having both of its major banks stutter actually exceeded London’s for much of the last decade.

    You end up with a recipe for some completely invalid and highly dangerous conclusions. Jenkins utterly idiotic intervention is the most spectacular, as you say, but it’s really just a more extreme example of the same flawed logic that is being used by Davis.

    Birmingham and Manchester under-deliver on urban agglomeration effects because of the relationship between their size and their internal economic, spatial and logistical structure. Essentially they can’t support city centres and other dense urban zones of concentrated economic activity of sufficient scale to support the size of their population, while cities such as Edinburgh, Nottingham and Bristol can. While nobody is arguing that improving links between northern conurbations would be a bad thing, it is improving linkages and urban density within them that should be the priority. And simply making them bigger is the last thing we should be doing.

    • citypolicy says:

      Yes I agree with some of this. Some small cities, such as Norwich, York, Cambridge etc have seen strong growth. Economic structure, skill levels of population, anchor institutions for innovation and so on are also important, not just size. I also agree that links within cities and city regions are as important as those between them.

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