Three is the magic number


A report headed by esteemed economist Jim O Neil caused a stir last week with the suggestion that the great cities of Manchester and Liverpool should merge.

The City Growth Commissionan independent inquiry aimed at trying to boost urban growth in our major cities, suggests that ‘Manpool’ would enable the two Northwest giants to economically compete on the global stage more effectively by coming together, and help to begin to address the growing North –South divide which I wrote about here.

The argument goes that by creating a Northern super city we will see a genuine competitor to London, a capital city whose population and economic activity positively dwarves all other UK core cities.

As much as aggregating the might of Manchester and Liverpool would undoubtedly establish an economic juggernaut for the region, the practicalities of bringing the two traditional rivals together in a formal administrative sense would be challenging if not impossible. You only have to look at the deranged lobbying that took place over the name of the proposed Liverpool city region Combined Authority to see how difficult parochial local politicians find it to give up ‘power’ for the greater good.

Nonetheless, there is every prospect, indeed already existing evidence, that on issues of strategic economic importance significant co-operation takes place between Manchester and Liverpool. The two major transport infrastructure projects HS2 and the ‘Northern Hub’ are the most obvious, though not exclusive, examples.

Even on the international stage there is sharing of platforms and resource. The chief executive of Manchester city council and the mayor of Liverpool will share a stage in MIPIM next week. And Manchester is a key partner in the forthcoming International Festival of Business to be hosted in Liverpool.

So though a formal coming together of the two cities is as likely as Luis Suarez signing for Manchester United, the agenda for even greater collaboration should be explored and progressed.

However, why stop at Manchester and Liverpool? In both those transport infrastructure projects mentioned Leeds is a key partner too. And the attractiveness of a great northern economic hub, with three major conurbations working together rather than two, is a powerful and surely more compelling option.

By coming together to form a triumvirate of the north, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds could accelerate the work that they do together already, and extend it. Motorway connectivity is a major issue that can only be genuinely addressed by all three cities working in partnership and finding and funding a solution.

What of aviation? Is the wider region capable of sustaining three airports without greater dialogue between Leeds Bradford, John Lennon and Manchester Airport Group?

Beyond transport, there are many cultural and social projects where greater collaboration and a pooling of resource could bring benefit to the entire region.

Another area where the three cities are already at one is in their call for devolved powers, budgets and responsibilities. Ultimately this is the key that will truly unlock the potential of our great cities and begin to close the unhealthy gap that exists between London and the rest of us.

An Unhealthy Imbalance

Outlook for Cities

Another report, another confirmation of the economic chasm that exists between London and the rest of the country.

The Centre for Cities report ‘Cities Outlook 2014 highlighted the growing gap between North and South, in particular planet London and the rest of us.

London accounted for a huge 80% of private sector jobs created between 2010-2012, while Britain’s nine next largest cities combined created only 10% of private sector work.

In actual terms 216,700 jobs were created in London in the two year period, compared to the next best figure which is Manchester’s 13,200.

Cities like Liverpool can partially celebrate the news that more private sector jobs have been created than in previous years, but then we have to accept the low base from which the city was starting from; and the yet to be fully felt impact of massive public sector cuts across Merseyside, and indeed the North of England generally.

Successive governments have tried, and quite clearly failed, to address what has been an unhealthy imbalance in the UK economy for far too many years, and it is now surely time for our politicians to accept that only radical, structural reform that allows genuine decentralisation of power to our great city regions and counties is not just desirable, but absolutely essential.

Poorly funded Local Enterprise Partnership’s, a scattering of city mayors and combined authorities are the existing vehicles that are in place to give the regions a better chance of competing with the London beast. As the figures show, they simply aren’t working.

The problem is that whichever colour the government, Westminster finds it incredibly difficult to give up the patronage it has held over the rest of the country for centuries.

‘How can we trust those Northerners to elect politicians who will do the right thing’; or ‘We know best’ is the long held view in the corridors of Westminster power. Crumbs off the table for the odd city deal here; the much trumpeted but ineffective Regional Growth Fund; and other poorly funded one-off initiatives are apparently all we deserve.

It is time we in the north started to demand more. Private/ public sector partnerships have thrived in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Lancashire for many years now, but to maximise the potential of this collaboration we need a genuine transfer of powers AND resource.

The models of governance can be debated and discussed within the regions, and one size may not fit all, but we can’t go on like this.

For me the starting point is adopting an economic strategy that recognises the dangers and absurdity of more than 80% of the nation’s wealth being created in one city; a meaningful redistribution and decentralisation of funding for major city regions and counties, including an increase in borrowing limits and control over council tax and business rates; plus the establishment of regional investment banks.