The BBC’s Evan Davis says Britain needs a second ‘super city’ – and this could be Hebden Bridge. Dr Iain Deas, Prof Graham Haughton and Dr Stephen Hincks are sceptical.
In his BBC series Mind the Gap: London v the Rest, Evan Davis argued that the UK’s economy is held back because London is our only super-sized city. In most countries the largest city is twice the size of the second largest and three times the size of the third. But the use of lateral thinking suggests the UK already has a nascent second ‘super city’. It’s Hebden Bridge.
The case for a second super-city is based on World Bank research, showing that large cities raise productivity. Yet Mind the Gap failed to explore the supposed causal link between population growth and economic output. Instead, the programme merely asserted that if Manchester were made the size of London it would be expected to be “about 6% to 16% richer”.
Manchester and Birmingham are the most realistic candidates to become Britain’s second global city, because of their size and international standing. A survey commissioned for Mind the Gap found Manchester to be the preferred choice.
But, as the programme made clear, another option is lineal linkage between existing urban areas along the M62 motorway corridor. Hebden Bridge could be at the heart of this super city that brings together Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. As well as its geography, Evan Davis argued that Hebden Bridge has the advantages of London-style cultural tolerance and liberal mindedness and is populated by commuters to both Manchester and Leeds.
The idea of a trans-Pennine super-city is not new. In the 1990s, the University of Manchester’s Planning and Environmental Management Department produced a series of studies arguing for a trans-Pennine regional growth corridor, from Liverpool to Hull.
This proposal attracted interest from the European Commission. Backed by Interreg funding, the trans-Pennine corridor eventually extended as far as Dublin to the west and Donetsk in the east, forming the North European Trade Axis.
Star architect Will Alsop also put forward, in 2005, ideas for an M62-based super city, which generated political interest. And John Prescott’s Northern Way, linking the M62 cities but with a spur to Newcastle, was seen as a new growth corridor that would help bridge the ‘£29 billion gap’ in economic output between the northern regions and London.
Despite these repeated attempts to create a Northern ‘super city’, fulfilment has proven frustratingly difficult. The cities have their own cultures and civic structures that are resistant to merger. Instead they have long-standing parochial rivalries, spurred by central government policies promoting competition for resources, skills, investment and prestige events.
So it is no surprise that attempts to promote collaboration should founder. Symbolically, the Liverpool-Manchester Vision from the now defunct North West Development Agency unravelled because of inter-city acrimony about its launch location. Attempts at creating a new combined Merseyside authority came unstuck over a proposal to use ‘Liverpool’ as part of its name.
And historic infrastructure weaknesses cannot easily be overcome. Investment in the rail connectivity between the ‘M62 cities’ is desperately needed, yet shows no signs of being met.
While the HS2 and Crossrail schemes will costs billions and improve transport to and within London, resources for trans-Pennine linkages are thin. In fact, 13% of the rolling stock on the overcrowded trans-Pennine rail route may be diverted from 2015 to meet capacity shortages in the South East (see Parliamentary Business, 2014).
Even when investment is promised, it is regarded of secondary importance compared to the needs of London. The electrification of the Manchester-Liverpool rail line to create a high(ish) speed connection was dependent in part on surplus rolling stock becoming available from London.
The Northern cities themselves struggle to obtain the investment needed for new infrastructure, improved links and, indeed, any major schemes to develop their economies.
The Government’s localist rhetoric is not matched by an ability of cities to obtain investment. This issue is the more crucial as provincial cities, including those in the North, have borne the brunt of public sector job losses. The only English region not to experience a net loss of public sector jobs since 2008 has been London.
The logic that what’s good for London is good for the UK as a whole continues to blight development outside the capital.
But why should the ‘The Rest’ – people outside London – accept that their taxes fund investment in an already buoyant economy? And do we really want to live in a country where political decisions are led by dubious and unproven assumptions about how best to raise UK productivity?
It would be better to think in broader terms, to the benefit of London, Manchester – and Hebden Bridge.
- A longer version of this blog is published at http://citiesmcr.wordpress.com/and the authors’ open access paper on the subject was published last month in Environment and Planning A.