The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.
Summary: We could kick start the economy by creating the UK’s second global city between Manchester and Liverpool at minimal cost to the taxpayer, bringing a wide range of long term social, environmental and economic benefits.
Liverpool and Manchester showing current urban areas (red) and proposed development (yellow)
With a stagnant economy, housing crisis and an increasingly divided society the UK has seen better days. Yet London as a whole is fine, the economy is growing. The reason, London has an advantage. London is bigger; better not just a national capital, but also a global city.
Economists refer to the benefit of size as economies of agglomeration. By bringing complementary businesses and people together, the local economy grows faster than when they were segregated. This growth attracts talented people and other businesses that drive further growth. This virtuous circle of growth has allowed London to grow whilst sucking in money and skilled people from the rest of the country. The BBC’s Stephanie Flanders sums up this issue in this excellent video. Despite successive governments’ attempt to rebalance the economy the North-South divide is widening. Part of the problem is that when limited funds are spread thinly over many areas, the resultant growth is limited; while many of our cities have grown, none has grown as fast as London.
Agglomerate for Prosperity
What is needed is an alternative global city that could have its own economies of agglomeration, comparable in scale to London. Such a city would need to be much larger than our current second city of Birmingham (3.6 Million people), so where could this metropolis be, and how could it be created in a time of austerity?
Fortunately, a quirk of geography may be in our favour; our third largest city Manchester, is very close (31 km) to our fifth largest Liverpool. Moreover, the gap between the two is full of small and medium sized towns. Taken together the total population is over 4 million. Linking them together into a global city of at least 6 million people would make it not only one of the largest cities in Europe but a global city able to compete on the international stage. This new super-city could be an exemplar of sustainable development allowing millions to lead environmentally friendly, healthy, and rewarding lives.
Space for a million new homes
If we assume the new development has land use patterns similar to London with high density housing (town houses and low-rise flats), of 60 dwellings per hectare, compared typical UK towns of 20-30. That equates to 1,200,000 new homes set among 60 new Hyde parks. To put that in context the Future Homes Commission estimates we should be building 300,000 new homes per year rather than the 100,000 we currently do.
Build on the countryside to save the countryside?
This new development does involve building on greenbelt land, viewed by most of the British public as a criminal act. However, building a high-density inner city would consume less greenbelt per house than building lower density suburbs we usually build on greenbelt resulting in a net saving of natural environments. Dense cities have higher utilisation of public transport and walking bringing wider environmental and health benefits.
The 150 km2 of new parkland created could be interconnected into green corridors preventing the city from splitting up habitats, and creating uninterrupted walking and cycling routes from the centre of the city to the countryside.
Finding the cash to build
Building these homes, shops, and offices is an inherently profitable activity, and so can be privately funded; however, private companies will want to see the government committing to infrastructure in this new metropolis. In part, this can be supported by having a plan, if land is set aside for new infrastructure it will boost confidence that it will be built eventually. The site is already covered by an extensive road network, three Manchester-Liverpool rail lines plus many lines closed by Beaching in the 1960. Network Rail is already investing £560 million in upgrades in the area. Several upgrades to Manchester’s Metrolink are under construction. While private funding may be found for part of the infrastructure build, or be financed by a levy on homebuilders like in Milton Keynes, it is likely that central government would need to find up to £1 billion over 10-15 years in funds to get the project to completion, significant but achievable, and far less than the potential economic gains.
Reaping the rewards
The benefits of agglomeration are not immediate, but the rapid alleviation of the housing crisis is urgently needed. Leaving Manchester and Liverpool separated will keep the UK in the one vibrant global city and many run-of-the-mill cities. By creating a second global city, we have the chance to correct the many mistakes of earlier urban planners; rebalance the UK’s economy, and creating a genuinely sustainable city that would turn into a long-term asset for the UK.