Let’s Unleash Britain’s Great Cities


London may be the centre of the universe, but that is no longer any reason for the British government to ignore the provinces and our other major cities.

Thus far, recognition of this important fact has come mostly from London envy and the desire to drag the capital city down a peg or two – not a very sensible policy as far as the national interest is concerned. But the debate is gradually coming to be seen in terms of helping the UK’s other cities to grow and to prosper. In essence, the debate is moving away from a Labour-style “let’s drag everyone down to the same mediocre parity” argument and towards a “let’s create opportunities for innovation and growth and see what happens” proposal. This is most welcome.

The economist Jim O’Neill, writing in The Telegraph, has half of a good idea when he proposes merging northern cities and devolving fiscal powers to them in order to spur economic growth:

After considerable discussion, and for primarily practical reasons, we settled on what we are describing as the 15 largest “metro regions”. This is not to downplay the importance of other cities, towns or villages, but to emphasise – as many experts have concluded – that it is the largest urban areas that usually generate the most economic activity. We need to concentrate our efforts there; evidence from other countries shows that the biggest urban areas matter most when it comes to unleashing a step-change in national economic activity.

In this context, I raised a delicate topic with the last of three panels: namely whether the Greater Manchester area is, in fact, big enough. If you look at a list of the world’s largest cities by population size, you have to go a long way down from London before any other UK city appears. Some argue that in the absence of another city with anything like the population and diversity of London then attempts to boost growth, however smart, won’t lead to much.

This is good stuff. Greater Manchester is certainly prime for devolution of fiscal powers under a unitary authority and an elected mayor, along the lines of London. Manchester is a large, globally recognised city. Granting it more power to alter local taxes, services and policies would be a great example of localism at work.

This blog has long advocated wholesale constitutional reform for the United Kingdom, in which England would gain its own Assembly to debate matters relating to England only, and powers of taxation and policymaking would be equalised between the assemblies of the four home nations under the UK Parliament.

Basing this new English assembly in one of the great northern cities would be a boon to the host city and would help to reduce the London-centricity of political and media focus in the UK without taking anything away from London, which remains the goose that lays the golden egg.

Unfortunately, after proposing the devolution of powers to major cities, O’Neill follows a somewhat different train of thought and his economist brain takes charge to the detriment of what was otherwise an intriguing proposal:

In the spirit of trying to keep an open mind, I quizzed the group further. What did they think of the notion of “ManPool”, where Liverpool and Manchester might bring together their populations and resources to create a “supercity” in the north? Many Telegraph readers might be familiar with the depth of history between Liverpool and Manchester, even if they are not followers of a team from either city. Football allegiances aside, the reaction I received made it pretty clear the prospect was highly unlikely from an administrative perspective.

Sometimes, things that make perfect sense when viewed on a chart or an Excel spreadsheet are self-evidently ludicrous when you consider the human beings that the numbers represent.

While devolution of greater powers to the UK’s major cities is to be welcomed, the power must be devolved to recognised levels. People know what Manchester is, and at a push they could get behind the idea of the Greater Manchester conurbation. The same can probably be said for Birmingham. But ‘Manpool’ or the West Midlands Conurbation are places that exist only in the minds of civil servants and economists.

This is where a politician’s mind is required in addition to that of an economist. Great cities need more than the perfect mix of investment, local skills and natural resources. There is an element of civic identity, the fact that being a Londoner or a Mancunian or a Brummie is a clearly identifiable term and means something, which must be considered as well as the cold hard calculations as to what makes an ‘optimal’ self-governing urban unit.

Unfortunately, this fact seems lost on O’Neill, who takes his consolidation proposal to even more objectionable extremes:

One could easily apply the same logic to other cities close to each other, such as Derby and Nottingham, or Newcastle and Sunderland.

Following this logic to its ultimate conclusion, we would be better off if we treated the entire United Kingdom as one giant conurbation, a single vast city-state. The UK could devolve power to itself, and under unified authority it would enjoy better coordination of projects and higher economic growth. This is clearly preposterous.

Nonetheless, Jim O’Neill has proposed half of a good idea. The UK’s major cities need to strengthen their individual identities and improve their economic vibrancy. Devolving more power to them could only be a good thing, if only the seemingly inbuilt British resistance to variety and fear of the dreaded ‘postcode lottery’ could be overcome.

But rather than wasting fruitless hours in committee trying to come up with a catchy, memorable name for the new NorIpsCamWich Urban Region, let’s just use those handy city names conveniently handed down to us by history and actually recognised by the people who live in them.

After all, there’s no point in creating extra work.

Profit Maximisation vs Public Space

Will Hutton is quite possibly the only person left in Britain who thinks that it would have been a good idea if we had joined the Euro at the currency’s inception (disclaimer: I thought so too at the time, but in my defence I was a naive sixteen-year-old and I didn’t know anything back then). So at this point in time we should probably take most of his public pronouncements with a very large pinch of salt.

However, when the bestselling author and economist writes about matters other than economics, he can sometimes make a lot of sense. Writing in The Guardian today, Hutton makes a very cogent point relating to architecture and town planning, and the way in which too much development in Britain today is focused solely on commercial and retail space, with little or no thought given to public areas or civic spaces that are often the heart of a neighbourhood.

Canary Wharf - Hundreds of restaurants and shops, no public spaces
Canary Wharf – Hundreds of restaurants and shops, no public spaces

With regard to London’s Canary Wharf district (where I have experience of working), a large financial centre increasingly luring business away from the City of London, he writes:

Commercial developers behind the likes of Canary Wharf – the pioneer of vast, privately controlled spaces since emulated in the shopping centres of Liverpool One and Bristol’s Cabot Circus – want to reduce public space as much as they can. They want to be free to configure where we walk, what we visit and who has access because thus they can maximise sales per square foot of shopping and rents.

Public space costs money twice over: it has to be paid for by taxes (and we know many corporations do their utmost to avoid tax) and public space represents lost revenue. In a world in which everything has to be consecrated to “wealth generation”, providing a critical mass of public space that can be used for multiple public and social uses has been a burden too far in almost all recent large-scale urban regeneration projects throughout the country.

This is certainly true. While I love the architecture and the tall, glass and steel buildings that dominate the skyline in that part of the city (a little bit of lower Manhattan in London), it is also true that at times it can feel almost crushingly soulless. And the reason is precisely as Hutton states – almost every square foot of land is designed either to generate revenue, or to ease the passage of pedestrians so that they can move from making one transaction to the next, and then back to their office, with the utmost efficiency.

The most damning proof can be seen after the last Friday-night office revelers leave the bars and steak houses by the waterfront late on Friday night – until Monday morning, when the first bankers sleepily ascend from the tube station, the place is a ghost town for the duration of the weekend. Why go to Canary Wharf if you are not working there? And it is a terrible shame, because but for the addition of a small park, an area of grassland for people to picnic on, and a few other minor alterations, the area could be pleasant to visit at any time of the week.

Hutton continues:

One of the delights of Brighton’s Lanes or Oxford’s covered market is the possibility of escaping the tyranny of the shopping chains. You can go there just to hang out, shop, eat, browse or go for a stroll – and in this environment there is a chance to encounter the new shop, pub or restaurant. The insurgent is on level terms with the incumbent. Minton quotes many European architects who despair at our impoverished, weak municipal authorities unable to deliver such a social and public ethos compared with those in Europe: the Swiss, hardly tribunes of the left, have a strong civic tradition and fabulous livable cities. Why can’t we?

And he concludes:

Britain can do better than be a land fit for the owners of Westfield and Canary Wharf. It can be a place we want to live in; where we go to the city because we want to go to the city – not just to shop. The Victorians built great parks and civic spaces with great pride, openly revolting against the depredations of free market capitalism.

Of course, as with most Will Hutton articles, his central point is served alongside a healthy scoop of scepticism about capitalism and the free market, but in this case his well-worn views on that subject are worth enduring in order to appreciate the central message.

Many times, wandering around Canary Wharf or other similar developments (such as Paternoster Square near St Pauls) I feel almost resentful that in the midst of many areas in this wonderful city, there is nothing to do but eat and shop. Very few benches, almost no green space but a multitude of signs reminding me that this is privately owned land and that I must at all costs obey the directions of the ubiquitous security guards who patrol the courtyards and wield their authority.

Paternoster Square - a cathedral to consumerism next to St Paul's Cathedral
Paternoster Square – a cathedral to consumerism next to St Paul’s Cathedral

To reiterate, I am not against any of these new developments – no Price Charles, I. I love the new architecture that is changing the face of London, and many of these new precincts have helped to revive struggling areas – the new Westfield shopping centres in Shepherds Bush and Stratford, for example.

But an insufficient balance has been struck in recent years, and given the current anti-establishment and (to some degree) anti-capitalist feeling currently roiling the country, it does not speak well that many of London’s newest, shiniest developments – with rare exceptions – serve as pure consumerist temples, with no civic heart.