The Mancunion

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Will Hebden Bridge be the solution to London’s economic dominance?

Tom Learmouth discusses whether a Manchester-Leeds union will draw investment into the North

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Dragon’s Den presenter Evan Davis has proposed in his new BBC 2 documentary Mind The Gap: London Vs The Rest that the answer to challenging London’s apparent dominance over the rest of the UK lies in the creation of a Northern mega-city that includes the ‘suburbs’ of Manchester to the west, and Leeds to the east. However, this would obviously require a huge amount of investment and risk taking (not to mention the deep rooted Lancashire and Yorkshire regionalism). Is it a realistic proposition for the future? Is it a problem that London is rapidly growing almost independently from the rest of the UK?
Davis believes that London is in a virtuous circle; essentially sucking in all the top talent from the rest of the country because it has the attraction of containing all the top talent. This idea of networks of people clustering together in order to potentially become more productive is known as agglomeration economics. But does this hold true for Manchester University students?
Well, according to Which? University, about two thirds of graduates who studied in the North West stay there after graduation, with the proportion being highest in Manchester. This appears to show that it is not always necessary for graduates to look towards London to further their careers, however 1 in 5 graduates in England do move to London. This statistic is disproportionately high and demonstrates a need to create a second ‘hub’ in the UK in order to rebalance Britain’s lopsided, London-centric economy. This would benefit not just the rest of the country, but an increasingly crowded London as well. Could the answer be a Hebden Bridge mega-city?
The idea of Hebden Bridge as the UK’s second city is a metaphor used by resident and historian David Fletcher, who describes the town as part of the unique, green-belt centre of a vast urban area. Fletcher is also associated with the ‘transpennine movement’, which promotes Lancashire and Yorkshire economic integration and infrastructure development, and has formed the private company Transpennine Ltd. In the late 1990s, Transpennine Ltd commissioned research undertaken by Manchester and Leeds Universities into the economy, environment and transport systems of the transpennine corridor, with this being co-funded by the European Commission. The vision of Manchester-Leeds integration is far from fantasy.
However, there is the obvious issue of identity across the North of England when it comes to unity. Aside from the Manchester and Leeds rivalry – or hatred – reflected by football fans, the concept even of Manchester is currently narrow. Speaking to the Manchester Evening News about the programme, Davis thinks residents in areas such as Salford should stop refusing to be called Manchester, due to it limiting the city’s international reputation. He sees it as “a serious problem” but I think it is a problem that can be overcome – the idea of Salford ‘in’ Manchester can succeed. The same is true for the whole Yorkshire-Lancashire region. Before consensus can be formed there needs to be a form of administrative identity in the M62 corridor – something that does not currently exist. This can project a unity that can boost the urban area’s international reputation. What’s more, historically, the idea of Yorkshire and Lancashire as two separated regions is something of an illusion.
Davis argued in his documentary that the problem in Britain was not that London is too big, but that other cities are too small. There’s a loose idea that the size of cities generally follows ‘Zipf’s law’ – stating that a country’s second city is roughly half the size of its first city in terms of population. According to this, you could argue that the UK doesn’t have a second city. Greater London is as big as the next 6 urban areas put together – the second highest is Greater Manchester with a population of 2.5m. This shows that the UK is in a fairly exceptional situation.
In Germany, for example, there are a number of large, ’important’ cities (namely, Hamburg and Frankfurt) and Berlin certainly doesn’t dominate. Having larger cities can help the UK economy to grow, and this is supported by academic literature concluding that doubling a city’s size increases productivity by between 3-8%.
Investment in transport and infrastructure that can bring Manchester and Leeds together would have to be large, and the UK government will be reluctant to invest heavily in the North given the current economic climate (and lack of guaranteed returns), but I think this mega-city idea should be explored further. Big cities are the future, and the UK en bloc cannot succeed with only one.