I love London. It is truly a great place and a genuine world city. However, as someone who lives in Stoke-on-Trent and spends lots of time – both professionally and personally – in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, surely there was far more horror than hope in Evan Davies’ BBC2 mini series Mind The Gap: London v The Rest?
Well, yes and no.
In it, big is beautiful and talent and money begets more talent and money. In a word: agglomeration. But I believe that the programme missed a fundamental point about London’s pre-eminence and that this omission offers hope to the UK’s other cities, but only if the political will and conditions are right.
London is an economic bonfire and almost recession-proof because of agglomeration, yes, but its burning core is the vast concentration of power and – directly related, of course – public investment. In a nation as over-centralised as the UK, and more specifically England, it is no surprise that London attracts wealth creators and businesses even in the toughest of times. Business HQs, charities, public organisations have to be based there because that it where national power and money resides.
So London becomes an almost inextinguishable fire.
So one way to ensure that our other cities, or ‘the rest’ in Evan Davies’ vernacular, can compete and succeed is to give real decision-making muscle and the money that goes with it back to Birmingham, Manchester et al. But – and this is the key – not simply as island urban areas but as genuine capitals of their economic hinterlands.
Councils, with their narrower geographical and economic focus will not spark the fires of industry where we need them. Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are in some ways a step in the right direction as vehicles covering ‘natural economic areas’ but lack the infrastructure and spending power really to make a difference. At least yet. In fact, that space seems to cry out for Regional Development Agencies, but let’s not go back to the future…
And what of the lessons for Stoke and cities like it? Although I perhaps should have been horrified and fearful based on Mind The Gap’s rather demeaning portraits of Wigan – new roller disco capital of the UK – and Barnsley, I was actually filled with optimism, but again only if the conditions are right.
Stoke has a very strong Unique Selling Point – ceramics. It is both an increasingly successful modern manufacturing industry but also a repository of heritage, skills and culture that can serve as the fuel for an economic and cultural fire.
Stoke cannot ever be London, or even Manchester. But with the right decision-making powers – and decisions - covering its natural economic sphere of influence then there is huge potential for its smouldering potential to catch light. Only though, if Stoke – and ‘the rest’ generally – is given a fair share of public monies and allowed to invest it as freely as possible.
Imagine a place where transport investment was more equitable – IPPR quotes £2,731 v £201 per person public spending in London and Yorkshire in 2011 – and regional public and private sectors decided that HS2, instead of going to and from London would actually connect the great cities of Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham.
Only that kind of radical thinking and freedom will enable us to create northern and central super-cities of talent and connectivity that can push growth towards London levels.
And Stoke? Well, equally close to the two giant hubs of Manchester and Birmingham with a USP based around ceramics it would have to be a success … if, of course, it is connected. If not, then going by Evan Davies’ theory of connectivity, without an HS2 stop for instance, Stoke might as well hang the “closed for business” sign up now.
Ian McLaughlan is a project manager and business consultant in economic development and also a former councillor and cabinet member on Stoke-on-Trent City Council.