In this second blog post about Evan Davis’s recent BBC series, Mind the Gap: London v the Rest, Iain Deas, Graham Haughton and Stephen Hincks from Planning and Environmental Management in the School of Environment, Educaton and Development at the University of Manchester look at the intriguing suggestion that policy support might in future concentrate on promoting growth in a trans-Pennine super-city radiating outwards from Manchester. In doing so, they draw on a wider critique of ‘agglomeration boosterism’ they began to develop in an open access paper published last month in Environment and Planning A.
The case for a trans-Pennine super-city drew on the now familiar argument that bigger is better in respect of urban economic development: that large cities are associated with higher levels of prosperity and productivity. Citing Word Bank research linking increased city size to raised productivity, the programme frustratingly left unexplored the direction of any causal linkage between population growth and economic development. Instead, it asserted that “if you could make Manchester the size of London (by doubling it and doubling it again) you would expect it to be about 6% to 16% richer”. Thus, what is needed is “the creation of a far bigger second city – one of several million people, which could serve as a counterweight to the mighty force that is the capital” (Davis, 2014).
Manchester and Birmingham, on the grounds of their size and international standing, were presented as the most realistic candidates to assume this status as Britain’s second global city. A survey commissioned for the programme showed Manchester as the preferred second city, if nothing else illustrating the effectiveness of the city’s efforts to transform its external perception as the quintessential ‘dirty old town’. But the programme also offered another way forward: creating a polycentric super-city by encouraging stronger linkages between existing urban areas along the M62 motorway corridor. Suggesting in partly jocular fashion that the commuter town of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire possesses the London-style sense of cultural tolerance and liberal mindedness to act as symbolic link between the great Victorian industrial cities on either side of the Pennines, Mind the Gap argued that investment in infrastructure and complementary economic specialism could create a super-city straddling the functional economies of Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.
Figure 1: The Manchester-Hebden Bridge super-city
The idea of enhanced inter-city cooperation, or of a trans-Pennine super-city, is by no means new. In the mid-late-1990s, some of our colleagues in Planning and Environmental Management at Manchester produced a series of studies articulating the ways in which a trans-Pennine regional growth corridor, from Liverpool to Hull, could be developed. This in turn prompted interest from the European Commission, and armed with Interreg funding the trans-Pennine corridor eventually extended beyond its northern roots to form a North European Trade Axis stretching from Dublin to Donetsk. This, and other ideas like the starchitect Will Alsop’s proposal in 2005 for a super-city along the M62 motorway, helped for a short time to generate political interest. John Prescott’s Northern Way, again linking the M62 cities but with an additional branch to Newcastle, was proposed as a new growth corridor, helping to bridge the ‘£29 billion gap’ in economic output between the northern regions and London.
The notion of increased inter-city collaboration – or even a pan-regional super-city – has been persistent, but fulfilling it has proved frustratingly elusive. Much of the initial political momentum underlying the Northern Way rapidly dissipated as the constituent cities reverted to more insular policy-making and produced a series of separate (and only nominally linked) city-region development plans, rather than a coherent pan-regional collaborative strategy. This is just one illustration of the difficulty involved in persuading cities with distinct political, economic and cultural histories to work together in any meaningful way. The potency of longstanding parochial rivalries in limiting the scope for meaningful inter-city cooperation is compounded by government efforts over more than thirty years to foster competitive localism and encourage cities to compete with domestic and international rivals for policy resources, skilled labour, inward investment, prestige events and so on.
In this context, it is hardly surprising that many inter-city collaborative initiatives should founder. The Liverpool-Manchester Vision – an attempt from 2001 by the North West Development Agency to promote greater collaboration around external marketing to visitors and inward investors – unravelled amid inter-city acrimony about the location for its launch event. More recently, efforts to agree a name for the new Merseyside combined authority have come unstuck over resistance amongst the city-region’s satellite districts to the use of ‘Liverpool’ in the title of the new institution (‘Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, Sefton and Wirral Combined Authority’ is the less than catchy interim compromise).
Securing agreement amongst reluctant constituent areas is just one of the obstacles confronting efforts to construct the kind of super-city mooted by Evan Davis and others. Infrastructure investment in the North, especially in the rail network, was rightly highlighted by Mind the Gap as an important way of cultivating links between cities. Evidence to date suggests that existing links are inadequate and the necessary investment unlikely to be forthcoming. The programme correctly noted that while HS2 and Crossrail involve billions of pounds of expenditure on improving transport to and within London, resources allocated to trans-Pennine linkages are slender by comparison. Indeed, at the time of writing Parliament is debating the announcement that some 13% of the rolling stock on the overcrowded trans-Pennine rail route is from 2015 to be diverted to meet capacity shortages in the South East (Parliamentary Business, 2014). And even when investment has proved forthcoming, as with the electrification of the Manchester-Liverpool rail line to form a high(ish) speed connection along the route of the world’s first inter-city passenger railway, this has been dependent in part on new infrastructure development in London generating surplus rolling stock to be refurbished and redeployed in the provinces.
Figure 2: Percentage change in public sector employment, 2008-2013
The ability of northern cities themselves to invest in developing new infrastructure or improved links – or to develop their economies more generally – is also constrained. Government’s localist rhetoric implies that cities have been ‘liberated’ and are free to develop whatever policy innovations they deem appropriate. However, the reality, given that austerity measures have impacted on local government more than any other part of the public sector, is that the ability of cities to effect economic change is highly restricted. The prospect of local agencies promoting meaningful economic development is perhaps especially limited in the cities of the north, given that it is provincial regions that have borne the brunt of public sector employment losses. Indeed, as Figure 2 shows, the only English region not to experience a net loss of public sector jobs since 2008 has been London.
The history of London-centric decision-making, and its recent parallel logic that what’s good for London is good for the rest, continues to blight the prospects for development for the country as a whole. Two things are left unanswered by recent calls to focus more resources on just a small number of large cities because of their supposed contribution to national productivity. First, why should the ‘The Rest’ – people outside London and other potential growth areas – accept their taxes funding disproportionate investment in apparently already buoyant urban economies? And second, do we really want to live in a country where decisions about the geography of public spending pander to a highly questionable economistic logic that attaches undue importance to inducing gains in a dubious concept like productivity? Better to think in broader terms, to the benefit of London, Manchester… and Hebden Bridge.