Opinion: Make your City a Global success in six easy steps – part 2

The UK has a problem: outside London our cities underperform. They fail to generate as much wealth as they should and many are net drains on the public purse. That’s not the case in every country – the UK is unusual in its concentration of wealth and power in one big city.

In part 1 of my article I set out the first three of the six steps cities need to take to turn that situation around. In this concluding part I identify the final three steps.

Step four: create more employment

The study “Investing in City regions” (2014) by Volterra Partners identifies a correlation between employment density and earnings. Where employees are packed in more closely together, they tend to earn more and work in more knowledge-intensive industries. Employment areas are ten times denser in parts of London than in Manchester. Of course, denser employment makes transportation even more important and reduces the role of the car.

The evidence suggests that encouraging dense employment districts in city centres and enterprise zones is a good strategy, as long as the infrastructure is there to support it.

Step five: build more housing

Congratulations – you’ve got a successful city. Now more people want to live there, but where will they all go? Greater London has a far higher population density than any other UK city. If Greater Manchester were as densely populated as the capital, it could house an extra 600,000 people without any physical expansion. That isn’t the whole answer, but it should be part of it. The devolution deal currently being considered in Greater Manchester includes millions of pounds to allow the Combined Authority to step in and get homes built in the right places where the market is failing.

Step six: get that city feeling

There’s one more problem to fix: to become a successful global city you have to really believe you’re a city, not just a collection of disparate localities that happen to be close together. If the people who live and work in a city don’t see it in that way, how can investors, entrepreneurs and relocating companies be expected to?

I don’t think many are there now. Do people in Bolton and Altrincham really identify with Greater Manchester? Do the residents of the Wirral and St Helens see themselves as part of Liverpool? Identities need to be forged, bonds created, visions developed. This may be the hardest challenge of all: investing in transport is easy compared to changing the perceptions of millions of people about the place they live.

A city future

This article is about our cities. Of course they are not the end of the story: our towns and rural areas also need attention and their solutions will differ – a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.

Getting our secondary cities to pull their weight, to grow economically, to become net contributors to the public purse is essential. Many of our former industrial and mercantile powerhouses have declined over the last century – to the point where some commentators have seriously suggested there is no way back and the whole of the UK must simply become a series of London commuter towns. I don’t believe that.

Our cities can have a bright and strong future, but they must believe in themselves, shake free of the dead hand of Whitehall and take control of their destinies.

* Iain Roberts is a Stockport councillor, LGA Peer and consultation, communications and public affairs consultant specialising in the built environment.

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  • Iain, as you may remember I have commented on earlier articles you have written and we do not hold identical views.
    In an effort to be positive rather than attack whatyou have said here I am posing some questions which might help concentrate thoughts.

    How do you measure success ?
    If you regard London as a “Global Succes” some of us who live down here might take raise a few doubts. Is a City a success if people who earn twice the average annual salary cannot buy a two bedroom flat in the borough that.they grew up in?

    Who benefits from a City being a “Global success” ?
    If you saw the BBC documentary on the Super Rich last week you might reasonably have drawn the conclusion that London is a success for the Super Rich and for the Russian Oligarchs that move here to benefit from the tax haven fiddles. But is it a success for the ordinary citizen who has to commute to work via London Bridge Station and for the next 5 years whilst it is being rebuilt have a much longer and more difficult journey to Erin their living?

    In the world of Gobalisation who determines what is a success?
    Is it the ordinary citizens through democratic institutions?
    Or is it secretive, unaccountable corporate lawyers who negotiate deals such as TTIP for the benefit of the few rather than the many?

  • Iain Roberts 12th Jan '15 - 6:13pm

    Hi John – you’re quite right of course that a simple measure of wealth isn’t enough if it’s concentrated in the hands of very few, and I’m sure you wouldn’t expect me to be so glib as to pretend there’s some simple one-size-fits-all answer to define success. I’m not suggesting London is perfect either (I chose to move to the north for a reason and haven’t regretted it).

    However, there is no doubt at all that our provincial cities punch below their weight on a whole range of measures. You could look at levels of poverty (albeit I fully accept there are areas of high poverty in London), at average GDP, at whether the city contributes to the public purse or takes from it. If you look at the studies I’ve linked to in the article they contain some sensible suggestions.

    I am not about to suggest we put off improving our cities until everyone can agree on a definition of what improvement looks like: that would be an excellent way to achieve absolutely nothing.

  • Iain Roberts
    There is probably more that we agree on than is obvious from exchanges in LDV.
    I think the need for properly democratic cities is a matter of fundamental importance for Liberal Democrats.
    The dreadful system with a Clown Autocrat as London Mayor is not one that any Liberal Democrat should want to copy.

    We can certainly agree on the merits of where you now live in comparison with most of Greater London.
    It is a secret that many in in London just do not understand – and probably best to keep it that way. 🙂
    My move south (I come originally from Wythenshawe) was due to circumstances beyond my control.

  • Richard Dean 13th Jan '15 - 12:27pm

    This sounds somewhat naïve and simplistic – the idea that employees should be “packed more densely together” to earn more is risible. As well as employees, cities have families, home-workers, children, ill-people, sporty people, artists, learners, doers. Nothing is easy, and there are no six easy steps. But there is one step that Boris Johnson knows well and seems to have been missed here – make your city out of villages. Maybe it’s in an earlier article?

    Cities have to be fit for human beings to live in, so they need to be made of a large number of relatively small communities, with much local community cultural infrastructure, as well as (not in place of) the larger stuff that bring together smaller communities in a single, valued-city, feeling.

  • Iain Roberts 13th Jan '15 - 4:12pm

    Hi Richard,

    You might like to take a look at the research and evidence behind earnings and worker density being correlated before being so quick to dismiss it.

    As for villages, I didn’t include that because I was looking at things that need to change, not simply restating things that are – for the most part – already in place.

  • Re: villages

    It is worth studying Milton Keynes, whilst there are things that they got wrong, there is much to learn, particularly as it is now a wealth generator in it’s own right; only catch is that it did take the best part of 40 years to get to this position…

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