People really should stop writing about London as if it were a burden. If the size and success of our capital city does cause problems, then they’re of the sort that other nations would kill for.
That’s not to overlook the difficulties, of course – not least the pressures on our national infrastructure or the distorting effects of an overheated property market.
Previously on the Deep End, we’ve looked to the Thames Estuary as potential room for expansion, but given the global demand for London, it’s a shame that we can’t have another one altogether. By this, I mean a second great conurbation to counter-balance our capital.
According to a brilliant piece in the Economist, we once came close to getting one:
“When the Manchester Ship Canal opened, growth in the region—centred on booming Manchester—threatened to merge swathes of the area into a single economic unit. In 1915 Patrick Geddes, a Scottish polymath, reckoned that Liverpool and Manchester were ‘fast becoming little more than historic expressions’. Yet by the early 1920s population growth in the region had nearly halted.”
What went wrong? The obvious answer is deindustrialisation – but the real question is why similar places elsewhere in world adapted more successfully. The main comparison that the article makes is between England’s industrial heartland (i.e. the combined metropolitan areas of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham) and Greater Chicago – which are roughly equal in size and population:
“Both Chicago and Britain’s metropolitan north are former industrial centres that grew rich in the 19th century but fell on hard times in the 20th. Yet their paths have diverged. Real incomes in Chicago are roughly 80% higher than in Britain’s ex-industrial core…”
Other than their location, the most obvious difference between the two areas is their spatial configurations:
“Chicago’s advantage is obvious; the metropolitan area circles a dense central city. Much of the region is linked by a single transport system and city government. Britain’s old manufacturing belt is not so geographically coherent.”
And yet as the article’s anonymous author points out, the same applies to Germany’s Ruhr valley, which has prospered nonetheless. One could also add the ring of cities that make up Holland’s main population centres – the so-called Randstad.
To truly prosper, England’s northern cities have to work as a whole and not just individually – which, in various respects, they don’t:
“Fewer than 40 miles divide Manchester from Leeds—less than the length of the Piccadilly line on the London Underground. But the rail journey between the two cities takes more than twice as long as that between Reading and London, which covers a similar distance.”
Surely, this is something we can and must put right. After all, the Pennines are hardly the Himalayas.
The author also identifies “divided government” as a “handicap”:
“Local officials are scattered between myriad town councils, and are more interested in beating neighbouring districts than deepening links with them.”
This is the one big thing that the article gets wrong. Far from being divided, the government of the region is extremely centralised – the trouble is that it’s centralised in London.
Thanks to ministers like Greg Clark, this is beginning to change, but the process of localisation needs to go much further. One can hardly expect the constituent cities of the North to think and act together when their strings are pulled separately from Whitehall.