Creating a Northern Counterweight to London is good for the Nation

On the 28 Oct 2013 The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce ("RSA") launched an independent commission known as the City Growth Commission is to investigate how England’s cities can become engines for growth (see the RSA press release Independent City Growth Commission launched by RSA  28 Oct 2013).

Chaired by the well-known economist Jim O'Neil the Commission will address the following questions:
  • "What are the key benefits – for the economy, investment, innovation, productivity and public finances – of shifting to a multi-polar growth model, in which our major cities are key players in the nations’ economy? 
  • What does the international evidence show about the role of cities in driving growth and catalysing innovation and what are the key success factors that we can learn from?
  • What is the relationship between public service reform and economic growth at city level? How can more effective demand management through public service reconfiguration and integration help to drive social and economic productivity and enable our cities to become financially sustainable?
  • How can decision making and responsibility be better aligned with the reality of local labour markets, so that employment support, childcare, skills policy, welfare strategy and economic development are integrated around the needs of local people and businesses?
  • How can growth in other English cities complement London’s economic success, and what should be the interrelationship between devolution, growth and reform strategies in London and in our other major cities?
  • What needs to change between Whitehall and our cities to make multi-polar growth a reality? What does the Centre need to do to enable this and what economic and revenue levers do cities require?
  • What are the practical, organisational, cultural and systemic barriers that stand in the way of a fundamental shift in economic power to our cities and how can these be overcome?"
The Commission will take evidence until this summer and then deliver its report in the autumn.

In "Prosperity Lives in the City" 30 Oct 2013 Bloomberg View, O'Neill wrote:

"More often than not, cities are the engine that powers economic growth. When a country’s cities succeed -- and I do mean cities, plural -- the economy is much more likely to prosper."

He also noted that although the British economy was beginning to pick up growth is not well balanced. The most conspicuous form of imbalance is regional in that there is an increasing dependence on London and the South East. O'Neill developed his ideas in an interview with Toby Helm of  The Observer 2 March 2014  "Cities chief Jim O'Neill's tip for a prosperous Britain: devolve to the north"  Stressing that the economic success of the capital was a good thing he suggested that the solution to the regional imbalance lay not in holding London's back but in making the other cities of the United Kingdom more like London. For instance, by improving transport links in the M62 corridor cities along its route could be welded into a single economic area. 

The BBC's economics correspondent Evan Davis took the idea a stage further in his article "The case for making Hebden Bridge the UK's second city" 10 March 2014 BBC website and his TV programme "Mind The Gap: London v The Rest" shown that same evening. Citing a World Bank conclusion that

"The large and growing academic literature suggests that doubling city size increases productivity by 3% to 8%"

Davis argued that if the population of Manchester could be quadrupled it would be between 6 and 16% richer than it is now. Now if Manchester were to quadruple in size it would occupy much of the space between Leeds and Liverpool. The components for such a conurbation already exists in the four contiguous metropolitan counties of Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West and South Yorkshire. If those conurbations would only think of themselves as one we have our second city already with a green centre located somewhere around Hebden Bridge.

In his article Davis wrote:

"The suggestion that[Henden Bridge] is Britain's second city came from resident David Fletcher, who was active in the 80s saving the town's old mills and converting them to modern use.

His point is that Hebden Bridge is an inverted city with a greenbelt centre and suburbs called Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.

His point was that the real second city of the UK is a trans-Pennine strip that extends the relatively short distance across northern England, joining the built-up areas that lie second, fourth and sixth in the UK ranking.

Certainly, Hebden Bridge has attracted a lot of professional couples who are split commuters, one heading towards Manchester and one towards Leeds each morning. 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 northern England into one large travel-to-work area.

It would require a lot of physical infrastructure to improve links between the different centres.

And there would doubtless be rivalry and tension. The fact that Manchester is at its centre may not delight those who enjoy the football rivalries that are well known in that neighbourhood.

But there is no need to combine the teams, or to combine the names.

There would simply be a need to build on the success the bigger cities of Britain have been enjoying in recent years."

Regrettably but perhaps predictably Davis and O'Neill's suggestions of integrating existing conurbations was taken literally and stimulated all sorts of unhelpful emotions including Trans-Pennine rivalries not to mention Cis-Pennine rivalries such as those subsisting between Liverpool and Manchester on one side and Bradford and Leeds on the other.

As I pointed out in "NESTA in Manchester" 3 Jan 2013 the Pennines are not a big deal. The coastal range that separates the San Fernando Valley from the city of Los Angeles is a much more formidable barrier but it does not prevent the people of Southern California from thinking of themselves, and functioning, as one metropolitan area.

It may be that this sort of regional thinking is beginning to take root at last. Something very similar to Davis's plan was canvassed by Haughton G, Deas I, Hincks S, 2014, "Making an impact: when agglomeration boosterism meets antiplanning rhetoric" Environment and Planning A 46(2) 265 – 270. It may also be manifesting itself in the ‘Destination Management Plan’ to turn the formerly derelict Manchester Ship Canal docklands into a cultural and sports complex to rival London's South Bank. This scheme has the support of Lancashire County Cricket Club, Manchester United Football Club as well as The Lowry, the Imperial War Museum North, the BBC, the University of Salford. Trafford MDC and Salford City Council. Certainly if the M62 corridor is to be an economic counterweight to London and the South East it needs a strong cultural base to attract and keep the professionals and business leaders who can make that happen.

As O'Neill is a prominent Manchester United supporter he might reasonably be expected to favour initiatives like Destination Management Plan.