Rebalancing the debate about rebalancing the economy – the role of public sector employment

Much of the debate about “rebalancing” the economy has been based on various assertions about the role of public sector employment.

The starting point for the debate is that economies of the cities and city regions of the midlands and north have been over-reliant on the public sector, to the point in some places that it has “crowded out” the private sector. It is clear that in contrast to the pre recession period when increases in public spending boosted jobs and growth in all places, an era of ongoing austerity means that the public sector will continue to shed jobs for the foreseeable future.

The debate is based on an implicit assumption that public sector cuts are hitting all places equally, although they will have a more significant adverse impact on places with lower proportions of jobs in the private sector. However a recent Financial Times article,  London and southeast benefit as public sector job losses show regional divide, reports that public sector employment has only fallen 2.5% in London and the South East, compared to 6.8% across the UK as a whole.

This has led economic commentators scratching their heads for the reason for this geographical imbalance. According to the FT article the Institute of Fiscal Studies said “it was difficult to know why London and the southeast had seen relatively small drops in public sector employment.”

Prof Tony Travers of the LSE provides one explanation: London’s rapidly rising population. For many public services, such as schools and the NHS, spending is allocated on a population basis. Scott Lavery of Sheffield University points to spending on transport, arts and culture that is focused disproportionally on London.

I think there are two further explanations.

First, local government has been hit harder by cuts than the mainly London-based Whitehall departments. And local government in the midlands and north have been hit much harder than Councils in the South East.

Second, even within central Government departments and agencies, more jobs have been lost outside London and the South East. According to the IFS civil service employment in London has fallen by 11% since 2010, compared to 17% across the UK as a whole. Many of the non-London central government functions that have been abolished, such of the Regional Development Agencies and Government Offices for the Regions, had a high economic multiplier. They employed people in high-level jobs, and directed spend into local economies, benefiting supply chains in the private sector (as well as of course realising benefits on the ground).

So what does this mean for cities and regions, and the north-divide in the future?

First, the geography of future public sector job losses will have significant implications. Austerity is here to stay regardless of the outcome of the general election. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimate a further 1 million public sector jobs will be cut in the next parliament.

Second, there would be appear to be a strong case for a more radical approach to relocation of the public sector away from London. The relocation of the BBC to Salford, the Environment Agency to Bristol, the Met Office to Exeter, and parts of the NHS head office functions to Leeds have had huge benefits to those cities. So far, Ed Balls has indicated that this would be a priority for a Labour Government. However the debate has not picked up pace.

Third, there needs to be a more nuanced debate about the role of public sector in the context of “rebalancing” the economy. I think the mantra of “private sector good, public sector bad” (and I speak as someone who has worked in both sectors) is unhelpful. Yes of course we need cities and towns outside London to have stronger private sectors. But we need to recognise that as well providing important services and direct employment, public sector functions (particularly high level ones) create many positive spin-offs that benefit businesses.

Finally, the regional imbalances in public sector job losses strengthen arguments for greater devolution of funding to cities. This is partly about fairness. It is also about effectiveness. The scale of cuts means that we need to drive public sector reform by integrating better policy and investment. Cities, not Whitehall, are best placed to do this, for example achieving integration between areas such as health and social care, and initiatives to end unemployment, skills and employment related benefits. Local people and institutions are better placed to make decisions about their areas than a civil service that has retrenched to its separate silos and its Whitehall base.

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England’s Regions 2005-15

Improving the economic performance of the north of England is a major policy priority of all the main political parties. Initiatives such as the Northern Powerhouse, Northern Futures, and a commitment to further devolution for cities and city regions have all been announced in recent months, and generated extensive debate and comment.
But it is helpful to step back and take a long-run view of the trends and issues.

In 2004-05, when with Arup, I was the project manager for a study looking at disparities between different parts of the UK in regional economic performance, population change, and spatial development. The project team brought together leading experts in economic forcasting, demography and strategic land use planning. The report of the study, Regional Futures: England’s Regions in 2030? was published almost exactly ten years ago.

The report sought to tell some “home truths” about the UK economy. Its findings, which generated comment in the national press (see, were not particularly popular with some at the time. It argued that there were significant variations in the economic strength of different parts of the UK. Whilst differences within regions were in some cases a great as those between them, the report identified the scale of a north-south divide.

Ten-years on it is interesting to look at the main conclusions and predictions of the report.

1. The impact of changes in public spending.

The report forecast that there would be a future economic slowdown creating pressure on public spending, and this would lead to a widening of the north – south divide. It argued that the strong economic performance of many parts of the midlands and the north in the decade before 2004 had been driven primarily by increases in public spending, not underlying strength of the private sector.

Of course nobody forecast the financial crisis in 2008, and the severity of reductions in public expenditure that followed. In the towns and cities in the north, midlands and parts of the South West the public sector forms a larger proportion of the economy than it does in London and the South East. They have therefore been hit hard as a result of spending cuts. With austerity and further public sector job losses to continue, regardless of the result of the general election, growth in private sector jobs will be needed just to enable the towns and cities outside London and the South East to stand still.

2.  Structural economic change

We predicted that employment in manufacturing would continue to decline, and financial and business services would continue to grow in London and the South, and also in the main regional cities.

Whilst manufacturing employment has, in line with long term trends, continued to decline, manufacturing is now seen as a more important part of the UK’s economic future than it was in 2005. The financial crisis demonstrated the folly of over reliance on the financial services sector. Manufacturing remains an important part of the economy, for example in the city of Leeds there are almost 30,000 manufacturing jobs, and around 140,000 across the wider city region. Manufacturing has modernised rapidly with the rise of advanced and innovative manufacturing characterised by increasing emphasis on research and development, collaboration with universities, a more skilled workforce, high quality product design, strong export performance, and success in selling associated services (manu-services).

However some commentators, such as Andrew Sentence, have recently argued that the mantra of “rebalancing” the economy has led to us under-appreciated the importance of financial and business services to non-London cities (see: Nowhere is this more the case than Leeds (the largest UK concentration of financial and business services jobs) where growth in these sectors, along with digital, headquarters and health sector is driving rapid jobs growth in Leeds City Centre (see the recent report by Centre for Cities:

3.  Continued growth, success and housing pressures in London

We predicted that the economy of London would grow faster than the rest of the UK, London would continue to act as a magnet for international and domestic migration, but would not deliver the housing growth to support its growth.

All of which has proved correct. Centre for Cities have highlighted recently the way London sucks in young, talented migrants. All of which has driven phenomenal levels of population growth in London (see: London’s economic success is driving growth across what the late Professor Sir Peter Hall identified in our report as the London and South East Mega-City Region, a functional urban area of 19 million people.

But London, and its surrounding areas have failed to deliver the housing needed to support its growth. This, combined with hot overseas money, has hugely inflated London housing prices. This has led to fears that the high cost of living will stifle London’s economic growth (

4. Policy interventions

Our report recommended various policy initiatives to improve the economic performance of the midlands and north. These included high speed rail, better commuter transport networks focused on the core cities, measures to attract and retain graduates and skilled workers including urban regeneration, proactive regional planning policies, and public sector relocation away from London.

Of these ideas, high speed rail has emerged as the big idea to help rebalance the national economy. A compelling wider case for HS2 was set out in the recent report by Sir David Higgins, Rebalancing Britain ( But with the possible exception of Manchester, investment in city region commuter transport networks has not kept pace with the huge improvements in London’s transport network.

The importance of cities attracting and retaining skilled graduates was highlighted in the excellent recent Magnet Cities work by KPMG ( and the City Growth Commission set out some interesting ideas around local graduate career fairs (

There has been less progress in terms of the other policy ideas. Most previous urban regeneration programmes are no more. The regional planning system and Regional Development Agencies have been abolished. There has not been a concerted effort to relocate Government functions from London (although Ed Balls has been developing proposals on this:

The big recent development, which we did not predict, was the consensus on the need for greater devolution to cities and city regions. Lord Heseltine’s report No Stone Unturned report ( set out the scale of change that could be possible. The Labour party have also set out bold proposals ( And the Liberal Democrats, with the Deputy Prime Minister leading the charge, have also made the case for devolution (

What is clear ten years on is that the issue of regional disparities in economic performance may have changed in nature, but they have increased in importance. How to strengthen the economic performance of the north, how to ensure our cities and city regions grow to their full potential, and how to accommodate London’s growth, and the capital’s relationship with the rest of the UK, will remain big questions over the coming months and years.

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“More planning is needed not less” – Professor Sir Peter Hall (1932 – 2014)

Whilst on holiday a few weeks ago I heard the sad news that Professor Sir Peter Hall had died. The world of town planning, transport, economic development and urban policy is a poorer place as a result.

There have been several obituaries published (the best one I have read is here: Peter was a colossus of the world of town planning and urban policy. He was prolific and highly relevant in his work. For those that met him and worked with him he was kind whilst challenging and absolutely infectious in his enthusiasm. In an era when too many academics, “urbanists”, and town planners talk and write in theoretical constructs and impenetrable jargon, he had an ability to communicate and write well and clearly, and to genuinely influence the real world.

His ideas, many of them considered bold and outlandish at the time, often became reality. Peter was hugely influential in developing the original visions for projects such as the Thames Gateway, London’s Docklands, Stansted as London’s third Airport, Enterprise Zones, the M25, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (which made enabled the regeneration of Kings Cross and Stratford, and thus made London 2012 possible), Crossrail, HS2, Garden Cities, and plans for better East-West rail across the north.

It was Peter in his Paper Heathrow – A Retirement Plan ( who first suggested a new London Airport in the Thames Estuary long before the phrase “Boris Island” had been invented (he would have been turning in his grave this week as the Davies Commission ruled out this bold option and instead opted for the muddling-though Heathrow solution).

I had the pleasure of working with Peter on several projects. His vision, foresight and knowledge helped develop the concept of the Thames Gateway as one of Europe’s most significant regeneration projects. I worked with him early in my career on an economic strategy for the Thames Gateway, and later when advising Government on where to prioritise investment in growth projects in the area. I remember a seminar in which senior Civil Servants sat in awe as he displayed a combination of broad strategic insight with encyclopaedic knowledge of the issues on the ground.

Peter cared deeply about the north-south divide and in particular the plight of places such as his hometown of Blackpool. I worked with him on a report in 2005 which predicted that future public spending cuts would lead to the London and South East economy pulling away from the rest of the UK (see:, and This was not a popular or common view at the time, but proved to be accurate. I also worked with him on a project to inform the development of a housing policy for the cities of the north of England, which recognised the growth potential for many existing neighbourhoods and the need to improve their quality of place (see:

Peter had a huge passion for railways, and generated lots of bold ideas. This could be a problem. I remember once expecting written input on international comparisons and strategic insights for east London, only to be sent a detailed paper on signalling and service patterns on the North London and Barking to Gospel Oak Lines! But whilst my economic strategy now gathers dust on a shelf, his idea of a high quality London Overground orbital rail service is now a hugely successful reality (see: I remember him being uncharacteristically quiet during one meeting on the challenges of connectivity in the Thames Gateway. At the end he handed me a piece of paper (which carelessly I have since lost) on which he’d sketched a plan for extending the Jubilee Line from North Greenwich to Ebbsfleet to open up a series of major development sites.

Recently Peter argued that to maximise the economic benefits of HS2 we need to integrate it with better local and regional rail networks, a point that has been grasped firmly now by Sir David Higgins. Earlier this year he asked me to speak at a seminar which looked at this topic and the issue of how we value (or undervalue) transport investment.

Peter was 82 when he died. In his final weeks and months his work became even more prolific (he published hundreds of articles and books during his life). He was always willing to argue against prevailing orthodoxies when necessary (as a Member of Lord Rogers Urban Taskforce, he refused to put his name to the recommendation that our housing growth needs could be met without building on greenfield land). But there was a real urgency in his last few months. He railed against the emergence of a prevailing view that town planning was a problem and a barrier to growth. In his final book “Good Cities, Better Lives” he argued the UK has much to learn from cities in France, Germany and Scandanavia in long term planning for growth, regeneration and liveability (

Whilst it is difficult to sum up concisely his work and influence, I would point to the title of one of his articles last year, More Planning is Needed, Not Less, (—planning-needed-not-less), and the final sentence of that article: “What’s needed is the will and the imagination.”

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In Praise of Leeds Independent Businesses

There is an exciting and positive new dynamic in the Leeds economy. Numerous small independent businesses are being started and are growing rapidly. These firms don’t fall into neat traditional economic classifications, but instead share common features and values. They are highly creative, entrepreneurial, distinctive, and cool. They collaborate, compete and cluster. They are displaying all the features of economic agglomeration, and the trend of business innovation increasingly being focused in and on the fringes of city centres.

The entrepreneurs starting and running these firms are also working together as a new part of the Leeds business community. They are creating new bottom-up initiatives to support and promote each other, and to champion Leeds. They are doing so not for payment or profit, not because they have been tasked to do so from above, and not because of a top-down economic strategy. They are doing it because they are absolutely passionate about what they do and their city. This can be illustrated through three examples.

Last night I had the great pleasure of attending and saying a few words at a fantastic event: the first Leeds Independent Business Awards. These awards were organised by brilliant Lola Wilson (with help from many others), founder of the website / blog Several aspects of the event spoke volumes about the characteristics of these new business networks.

First, the award winners were chosen through an online vote, demonstrating how these businesses are engaging with the community through social media.

Second, the event was held at the Tetley, a new contemporary art gallery in Leeds South Bank, a fast growing creative business quarter and innovation district, an example of the new “innovation districts” identified by Bruce Katz (

Third, there is a value system of mutual support and goodwill here. The event did not consume a penny of public money. It was organised by volunteers, many who work for Logistik Group (a great fast growing creative firm in Armley, Leeds) who encourage staff volunteering. The Tetley hosted it for free, and the headline speaker Mr (Matt) Burton from Educating Yorkshire did not charge a fee.

Fourth, the centerpiece of last night’s awards was the showing of a film made to highlight the voices, importance, concerns and aspirations of the children in Leeds.    This support for the Child Friendly Leeds initiative ( and is one example of the commitment these firms are showing to the city and the well-being of its communities.

Another sign of this new business community at work was a visit to Leeds by TechCityUk ( and the information economy team in BIS. Leeds City Council and Leeds and Partners hosted parts of the visit, and demonstrated support for the sector. But much of the organisation of the day was done by a group of Leeds tech and data companies. The presentation about the digital economy capabilities of Leeds came from this group. It told a story about our expertise in data science, fin-tech, our trail blazing work on open data, and the fact we are an Internet independent city. It did so in a way that was compelling because it originated from the businesses themselves.

Another example of a great bottom-up initiative was the Leeds Independent Bikes project ( This initiative, timed alongside Leeds hosting the start of the Tour De France, has involved designing and printing 120 unique large vinyl stickers in the shape of bikes. These have been placed on the windows of independent businesses, and of other organizations that have allowed their windows to support small independent businesses without a prominent shop-front or pavement profile. It has highlighted and showcased the range, creativity and quality of Leeds independent businesses. The project was created and driven forward by Laura Wellington and James Abbott-Donnolley, whose day job is to run Duke Studios (, an incubator for creative start-ups.

All of this is not to say large firms and traditional business networks are a bad thing. Large firms have much to gain by doing more for small independents. High street chain retailers benefit from independent traders providing appoint of difference for retail destinations (and independent retailers benefit from footfall attracted by large multiples). Today’s independent businesses are tomorrow’s high value clients for larger firms. And if large firms turn their back on dynamic new start ups, they are turning their back on new ideas, potential future acquisitions, and leaving themselves vulnerable to competition and waves of creative disruption from new ideas, products, processes and brands.

It is clear independent businesses are a good thing for many reasons. Much of the value stays in the local economy. They provide the creativity and innovation that our cities need to be competitive in a knowledge economy. They tend to train their staff well and invest in career progression for them. They create distinctiveness, an experience and brand image that our city and town centres need to succeed. They are putting lots back into their cities and communities. And they are coming together to create new business networks that are helping drive the innovation our cities need for economic success.


p.s. In praise of Kirkgate Market

Last night I unexpectedly came away from the Leeds Independent Business Awards with the Award for Best Place to Visit, for Leeds Kirkgate Market, which I collected on behalf of the Leeds City Council Markets team.

Kirkgate Market ( is the largest covered retail market in Europe, and home to hundreds of fantastic independent businesses. The award follows a TripAdvisor award ( earlier in the year. It is fantastic recognition to the efforts made by all the businesses in the Market (in what has not been an easy year). It is also recognition of the great work of the Councillors that are taking difficult decisions on the future of the market, and the Leeds Markets team that are managing and promoting the market, as well as developing plans for a £12m investment to improve it and secure its long-term future.

Many congratulations to the other winners: North Bar; The Gredy Pig; Our Handmade Collective; and Pastille Beauty

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HS2: The Regeneration Opportunity

Yesterday I spoke at a British Property Federation seminar (, on the potentially huge boost to regeneration from HS2. The HS2 Growth Taskforce has set our recommendations on what needs to be done to maximise the economic growth resulting from HS2 (see: The main message is clear: we need long-term planning, investment and focus on delivery to maximise the regeneration opportunities.

Beth West of HS2 spoke about international examples of high speed rail stations that have become hubs for development and regeneration as a result of proactive planning and public investment. But she also highlighted the risks of complacency, pointing to examples of high speed rail stations that stand in splendid isolation from surrounding development.

Lorraine Baldry, Chair of London and Continental Railways (LCR), spoke about the experience of HS1 where regeneration was integral to the vision, and indeed LCR had control of the land around the stations. The impacts at Kings Cross and Stratford are now there to see. An assessment of the economic impact of HS1 has shown that the regeneration impacts around the stations alone could amount to 15,000 new homes and 70,000 new jobs.

Richard Bowker, former Chair of the Strategic Rail Authority spoke about how existing methods of transport appraisal fail to capture the full positive land-use and growth impacts of transformational projects (a topic for a future post).

Steven Norris spoke about his experience as a Transport Minister when he approved the Jubilee Line Extension. That scheme that had been delayed because of doubts around economic benefits, but it is now difficult to imagine London’s Docklands without it.

I spoke about the huge opportunity in Leeds. The proposed HS2 station will be in the heart of Leeds South Bank, an area with significant potential for development and intensification on brownfield sites to enable the growth of Leeds City Centre. This 136ha area is of a similar size to Edinburgh New Town (which is 137ha), which indicates the scale and level of ambition of the project. I outlined five areas where we need to take action to make the most of the opportunity.

First, we need to ensure the plans for HS2 are integrated with those for regeneration of the areas surrounding the stations. We must avoid the HS2 station creating severance in the way in which the existing station and railways. We need to link HS2 and existing station in a way that makes interchange feel seamless, and also enables people to access easily surrounding buildings and spaces. We might also consider how the HS2 station could act as local and retail service hub, in the same way that Kings Cross and St Pancras stations are becoming the town centres for their surrounding communities.

Second, to spread the benefits of HS2 we need to connect it to a good quality local and regional transport network. We are planning to reorientate our city centre transport network to connect new areas of growth and make more areas pedestrian–friendly. We need better quality city regional rail connections between Leeds and other cities and towns such as Bradford, Halifax, Wakefield and Harrogate. It is not a case of investment in HS2 or investment in local and regional transport. It is about positioning HS2 as part of a coherent long-term strategy for the rail and transport network as a whole.

Third, we need to put in place the right delivery mechanisms. We will need to set out a clear long-term vision, coordinate investment, assemble land, and capture the benefits of value uplift. We are developing a proposition to Government to retain business rates growth in the area around the station, to create a revenue stream against which we can borrow to fund investment.

Fourth, we need to combine a long-term perspective with flexibility over the short to medium term. HS2 is a long term project. It will not reach Leeds until at least 2032. We should think about what our economy and what our cities will look like in 20 or 30 years. But Leeds South Bank is already an established and growing location for business, culture and learning. It is the home to Asda’s UK Head Office, and has seen major new developments such as Leeds City College’s Printworks Campus, The Tetley contemporary art gallery, and Sovereign Square, a new public space and a the new Leeds office for KPMG. In this respect the area is different to the environs of the HS2 stations in Birmingham and Manchester, which present more of a blank canvass suitable for a traditional masterplanning approach. We need to encourage the continued growth and regeneration of Leeds South Bank in advance of HS2, whilst not cutting off longer term opportunities.

Finally, we need to focus on people not just places. Leeds has widespread problems of poverty (see: and some of our most deprived communities are in close proximity to Leeds South Bank. We need to address the physical severance between some of these neighbourhoods and the city centre. And we need to equip our people with the skills to access the jobs that will be created by HS2 and the regeneration and growth of Leeds South Bank and city centre. That is why we need to learn from best practice on other major construction projects such as Leeds Arena ( or Crossrail ( It is also why we are bidding to be the home of the proposed new HS2 college (

In short, we cannot afford to adopt a strategy of “if we build it they will come”. We need a concerted, coordinated and long-term approach to exploit the huge regeneration opportunity presented by HS2.

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Science parks or city parks? The economic importance of liveable cities.

A couple of months I attended an inspirational talk by David Simm of Gehl Architects ( on creating livable and human scale cities. For visitors to and residents of cities that have invested in better public parks and spaces, the quality of life and quality of place benefits are undeniable. But for economists the economic benefits can be difficult to quantify? Too often, particularly in an era of austerity, city centre public realm projects are being seen as nice-to-have, not must-have interventions.

I considered this issue in a talk (see: I gave a few weeks ago at a Royal Society of the Arts conference on creating socially productive places. My argument is that the shift to a knowledge economy is transforming the geography of innovation in cities with important implications for how and where we prioritise investments to support economic growth.

Bruce Katz, in an excellent recent article and short animation ( explained how the landscape of innovation is changing. Previously, innovative firms located on out-of-centre business and science parks to which people drove to their buildings, within which knowledge and ideas were kept secret. But increasingly, innovative firms are locating in or on the fringes of city centres where their staff cycle or ride public transport to work, and in the “hyper-caffinated” spaces between the buildings they share their knowledge.

This trend can be seen from tech city on the fringes of the City of London, to the old mill buildings of the South Bank of Leeds. Its causes are the increasing economic importance of agglomeration. It is in city centres where people, firms, colleges and universities can locate in close proximity, where they can collaborate, copy and compete across company and sectoral boundaries, and where they can access easily a skilled and creative workforce (see my previous post on this:

It is for this reason that Centre for Cities argued in an excellent report last year ( that the post Portas debate about city centres needs to be about more than just retail. There should be a greater focus on city centres as locations for jobs, businesses and growth, and the role of retail and leisure as part of that wider context.

This all has important implications for the spaces, places and routes between the buildings in city centres. It is the quality and attractiveness of this public realm that will affect the ability of cities to attract innovative firms, workers, as well as visitors and shoppers. As Katz argues, there are new opportunities to develop “innovation districts” to regenerate areas on the fringes of our city centres. It also creates challenges for established out-of-centre office and science parks, many of which are now seeking to retrofit an enhanced retail and leisure offer, better public and open space, and improved public transport to be more like the resurgent in-town locations.

So are we valuing or prioritising sufficiently potential investments in city centre public spaces? And this might all be very well for Copenhagen, Shoreditch, or Boston, but what does this all mean for a place like Leeds? These are questions I will return to in my next post.

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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.

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