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Recently moved from London to Bristol, a friend of mine asked me last month: “How is life in Megacity 1?”. While she moved to be closer to her work as a retail manager, she finds herself frequently coming back to London to buy clothes for her small chain of shops in the South West.

Recently moved from London to Bristol, a friend of mine asked me last month: “How is life in Megacity 1?”. While she moved to be closer to her work as a retail manager, she finds herself frequently coming back to London to buy clothes for her small chain of shops in the South West.

The problem is not that London is getting too big, it’s that other UK cities are too small. This is how the adversarial relationship set up in the two-part TV series Mind the Gap: London v The Rest was resolved last night. As Evan Davis wrote “Britain does not have a second city. Instead, it has a first city and a couple of thirds…it is as though Britain has a great world city but lacks a great national one.”

As a recent report suggested, London’s ‘primacy’ – its size relative to the national economy – is not particularly unusual by international standards.

Other countries have more dominant capital cities than the UK Other countries have more dominant capital cities than the UK (Source)

It’s not just population size where UK ‘second-tier’ cities underperform. Along with other factors, their smaller size means they are less productive, in terms of economic value produced per resident. As Lewis Dijkstra notes “a range of cities allows each firm to find its optimal city”. Illustrating this point with bar graphs, and noting that costs to firms (wages, rent) and workers (housing, commuting) also increase in larger cities, he likens the ideal city distribution to a staircase. If the steps between cities are well-spaced, as in Germany and the Netherlands, firms and workers are less likely to make a compromise. In short, we can imagine that there are firms and workers who want to “downshift” out of London, but can’t stomach the loss in the benefits of locating in the capital; and firms and workers who want to move to London – but are unsure they can afford the costs relative to the likely benefits. Both scenarios lead to inefficiencies: the gaps in our city staircase are too big.

id="attachment_19214" align="alignleft" width="300"]ESPON staircase Gaps between cities – measured here in 2007 GDP per person – are smaller in Germany and the Netherlands. (Source)

 

The solution proposed Monday night was that “the real second city of the UK is a northern, 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”. This idea has been suggested before. As we highlighted in our Metro Growth report last month, 22,000 people cross the Pennines every day to commute. Other research shows connections and relationships between Leeds and Manchester are less strong than we would expect for these cities given the complementary nature of their economic activities. The Pennines are both a physical and psychological barrier. City boundaries don’t correspond to their economic footprint.

 

id="attachment_19216" align="alignleft" width="640"]Megacity 2? Megacity 2?

So, should we use national investment in infrastructure which better connects a ‘northern necklace’ of cities? The Northern Hub scheme now underway will improve the speed and frequency of trains, but over a distributed pattern of urban settlements car travel is likely to be much more convenient for the majority of trips. Without investment, the northern trunk road network is forecast to become more congested in the next decade. Which government – local or national – has the conviction to resurrect the motorways once planned? The M64 (Stoke to Derby), the M67 (Manchester to Sheffield), or the M650 (northwest of Bradford) to slice through the Peak District National Park? Furthermore, at our seminar last week, Henry Overman was sceptical that creating a network of northern cities was sufficient; we may be better off with one city of “over 3.5 million” for ‘agglomeration’ effects to kick in.

id="attachment_19213" align="alignleft" width="346"]Forecast travel times in 2025 Forecast road travel speeds in 2025. (Source)

Evan posed the difficult question as being how to fund public transport infrastructure in both London and other parts of the UK, when the needs of London are so evident. It’s easy to get upset when you consider that, on a per person basis, London gets many times more infrastructure investment than other regions. But much of London’s investment is private, not public; and London’s scale means authorities are able to borrow more affordably against future fare returns. London’s public transport network carries half of all the journeys on public transport across the country every day. On a net basis, each day, London also imbibes over a million workers from beyond its borders and a million visitors from the UK and abroad (tourists and those on business trips). But beyond transport, if government is to guide development of Megacity 2, how will specific policies and priorities change? What sacrifices will be made?

The first question is whether we are confident we can make the right kind of spatial plan. As referenced in the programme, Birmingham’s economic success in the post-war era was stunted by the Distribution of Industry Act 1945 and later the Control of Office Employment Act 1965. By 1957 the council had explicitly accepted that it was obliged "to restrain the growth of population and employment potential within the city.” Seeking the opportunity to rebuild bombed-out British cities at higher housing standards, many planners at the time sought to reduce urban densities, protect the newly created Green Belt around cities, and rely on motor vehicle transport supporting new suburban settlements such as Peterlee and Harlow. This was anti-agglomeration, perhaps even contributing to subsequent inner city decline. Only Milton Keynes – the largest of all new towns – has the scale and location today viable enough to have its own economic dynamism as an employment centre.

We have a poor record of predicting the future dynamics of economic geography, and many of the key forces shaping the UK at the moment are little understood. Despite being important long-term trends, the spatial implications of household dynamics and the changing nature of work remain largely unexplored. As more women enter the workforce, more households are made up of two earners. Larger cities offer the additional benefit of having a higher likelihood that both partners will be able to pursue careers in different sectors, occupations or industries. Some argue London has benefited from a ‘trailing spouse’ effect. For example, with schools benefiting from (otherwise mobile) teachers attracted to London by the work of their partners working in less mobile professions tied to London. And new technologies of production are accompanying different career structures, growing rates of self-employment and different types of workplaces.

— Tom Slater (@tomslater42) March 10, 2014

Mind the Gap barely engaged with the dynamics of the housing market, where growing anxiety is deepening the British obsession. Cambridge featured in the show as a success story, hungry for growth. Like Oxford, it’s a historic city endowed with a Green Belt and now bursting at the seams and increasingly unaffordable. London housing pressure needs a release valve, and London seems unable to provide it for itself.

The Green Belt in fact covers more land than the entirety of England’s urban areas which it was designed to constrain. It’s the jewel of strategic planning policy, but stifles other strategic thinking. For example, HS2 takes fast long-distance trains off the existing line. New commuter services will therefore offer drastically more capacity: from Willesden and Watford up towards Milton Keynes. Who is talking seriously about Green Belt release for new significant new housing development in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire? Welcome to a property-owning democracy.

id="attachment_19212" align="alignleft" width="325"]Planning restrictions and the proposed HS2 route; Source: http://www.sed.manchester.ac.uk/research/cups/map_for_england_final_report.pdf Planning restrictions and the proposed HS2 route. (Source)

 

Perhaps, therefore, we need a change in the geography of democracy itself. City growth needs local champions. Central government consented to London’s Congestion Charge in part with the comfort that Ken Livingstone – rather than national politicians – would be held to account if it failed. Lord Adonis noted last week that more people in Newcastle could name the mayor of London than their own council leader.

According to the boldest propositions, perhaps we should consider moving our capital. This question was asked at the launch of the City Growth Commission, and continues to be posed. Moving the political machinery could bring with it not just lobbyists and central government departments, but much of the private sector too - as the links between the two become more complex.

— Nick Humfrey (@nickhumf) October 28, 2013

— George Eaton (@georgeeaton) March 10, 2014

According to Professor Alan Harding “we have slowly redesigned our institutions of government and our major policy frameworks so that they respond to the pressures of growth in southern England and rarely see what happens beyond. We have a national policy regime that not only does not mind the gap, it extends it.” Last week we saw northern Lib Dem MPs calling for a High Speed 3 rail line across the North. The broad debate is gaining momentum and Mind the Gap was a substantial contribution. While cleverly pitched to stir debate, we need to move beyond 'London or' to 'London and'. To be successful, the City Growth Commission will need to build the most important links: those between the political rationale and economic rationale for reforms which will produce a better system of cities. London and other cities will each, inevitably, evolve in their role nationally and globally.

Jonathan Schifferes is research lead for the City Growth Commission hosted at the RSA (@jschifferes)

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