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Britain’s big cities don’t have a monopoly on growth

The Industrial Communities Alliance welcomes growth in Britain’s big cities – as our latest report makes clear. But a strong emphasis on the big cities to the exclusion of other places runs the risk of distorting the policy agenda and neglecting the potential for growth in industrial towns across Britain.

The evidence that cities are the drivers of UK regional economic growth is distinctly mixed. Research by Tony Champion and Alan Townsend (2011; 2013) found that, in general, core city employment grew slower than its surrounding areas between 1984 and 2007. A Government Office for Science report discovered a negative relationship between city size and output growth over the period 1981-2011. The Local Government Association found that over the period 2009-2013 employment growth was higher in non-metropolitan areas (540,000) than in metropolitan areas (185,000). The Centre for Cities, covering the years from 2004 to 2013, reported net job growth in southern cities of 12.4%, but only 0.9% in northern cities. Again, therefore, what seems to matter is not a city’s size but rather its regional location.

London has done extraordinarily well in recent years, but the big provincial cities do not have a consistent track record of job creation at a faster pace than either their immediate hinterlands or wider regions. Britain’s big cities do not have a monopoly on economic growth.

The limits to commuting
While big cities can attract commuters from miles around, they cannot on their own sustain whole regions. There are substantial commuting flows into the big cities, but London is once again the exception rather than the rule because of its vast and complex rail and tube network. Elsewhere, travel-to-work times into the big cities are often substantial, as the appendix for commuting times from industrial towns to core cities in our latest report shows. Many industrial towns, such as Whitehaven, are distinctly remote from the big cities.

Furthermore, there is a question of scale for big cities to sustain jobs growth in its wider area and the issue of cost of long-distance commuting, particularly for low-paid employment. The report uses Cardiff and the Valleys as a case study, and the clear conclusion is that though Cardiff can help address the shortfall in job opportunities in the Valleys, the main contribution will have to come from economic growth and job creation in the Valleys themselves.

Reliance on job growth in the big cities does not offer a way forward for most residents of Britain’s industrial towns.

The solution
With devolution, what is effectively underway, particularly in England, is ‘asymmetrical devolution’ whereby the big cities are the first to the table and the first to secure resources. This is not a formula for balanced growth across the country. What places outside of big cities need is devolution that empowers local authorities to address the challenges they confront, and adequate finance to do so.

What industrial towns also need is sustained action to rebalance the economy. Rebalancing in favour of the regions, industry, investment and exports is what the economy needs, and Britain’s industrial towns would be among the beneficiaries. They have the potential to contribute to the country’s wealth and they should be given a fair and equal opportunity to do so.

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