The Power of London
Although it didn't enthrall the stars of Gogglebox, I rather appreciated the recent two part documentary, Mind The Gap, presented by the ever astute Evan Davies. In the programme, Evan casts a light on the success of London and the impact this has on the rest of the UK.
It will come as no surprise that London is growing and with this growth comes more power. More revenue, more jobs, more resources are all being directed to the capital to sustain the extra 1,000 people who live in the city each week.
What has developed in recent years is a centralisation of social, political and economic power. This has created a magnetic effect, drawing more companies, jobs and people to London and the South East.
The technical term for this is economies of agglomeration. Talent attracts talent. Money attracts money. Success attracts success. It’s a cyclical process and it's intensifying, creating a more prominent wealth gap between the north and south. If London is continuously at the centre of our growing economy, where does that leave us?
Is a Northern Super City the answer?
Evan argues that our current set up of our relatively small, regional cities isn't working. He claims we'd be much better able to compete with London if we had scale.
So the idea is for a northern super city, stretching from Leeds in the east, then to Manchester and ending in Liverpool in the west. He suggests that with significant capital investment in East-West transport (and Londoners currently receive over seven times more per head in transport funding than us northerners), we could create a powerful economic corridor with the combined clout to take on the South.
What about Wakefield?
The economics say that one big city is more productive than two smaller ones. Evan believes small cities, those near to bigger ones - cities like Wakefield - should abandon dreams of becoming hubs or centres for industries like digital and technology and instead focus on serving local residents, in the service sectors for example. In essence, we should accept the higher value jobs go to our bigger relations and support them by becoming commuter towns.
Economically it may make sense. But history has also shown us that decisions made purely on economic grounds are often flawed. Wakefield itself is a pure example of showing how many things that shouldn't work on paper, can work with the right vision and leadership.
The Hepworth Gallery is a key example. Contrary to all expectations, the Chipperfield designed gallery attracted over 1 million visitors in two and a half years; more than double the expected numbers. It has received global acclaim and, alongside it’s equally successful sister attraction, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, has even been featured in the New York Times.
Furthermore, despite the worst recession in living memory, Wakefield Council has presided over an unprecedented regeneration of the city, ambitiously transforming key parts of the city. The new retail sector of Trinity Walk was one of only three shopping centres to open in 2011 and, in June 2013, attracted over 20m visitors in two years.
And the next stage of economic development for the city will focus on the six key sectors that hold the most potential. We’re not trying to compete with Leeds in financial services. We’re focusing on what we’re good at and where our potential is, areas such as food and drink, logistics and manufacturing. Wakefield is home to the largest soft drinks plant in the Northern Hemisphere (Coca Cola) and Europe’s largest bakery (Warburtons).
But we’re also looking to the future and developing our new industries; the launch of Wakefield's industry group for the creative, digital and IT sectors - Cognitiv - and the development of Unity Works, a creative/digital workspace and music venue, are key examples of this.
Wakefield is not an island
Small cities may not have everything on their side economically, but what we lack in this we make up for in tenacity, spirit and vision. We’ve made some tremendous steps in developing our city and this has, slowly but surely, translated into more visitors, more jobs and more prosperity.
We have the ability in this city to do amazing things. But in reality we cannot do it alone.
Wakefield is working with our neighbours in the Leeds City Region. We are putting into practice economies of agglomeration, bidding for funding together on key projects like transport. And it's only by doing this that we have a chance to compete. But this doesn't mean we have to lose our identity and become a faceless and anonymous super city.
It's clear to me that this model is the way forward. Working together, perhaps extending the Leeds City Region to connect even more with our friends in Lancashire, Merseyside and South Yorkshire, may provide us with the mechanisms to secure the resources, to close the gap with London and reignite the spirit that made so many Northern towns and cities truly great and the envy of the world.