Building a second supercity starts with better transport
By Ian Wray, University of Liverpool
The UK’s economy is highly unbalanced; we have the worst regional disparities in the developed world and London’s property prices are also the world’s most expensive – second only to Monaco. Rebalancing the economy is crucial to our future, and it can be done.
With the right investment in transport infrastructure, a second megacity formed by linking Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, is achievable and could rebalance the UK economy by shifting focus from the dominating south-east.
This could be achieved by creating an economic powerhouse in the north, one that replicates the very factors that underpin London’s growth: a large and diverse population and economic base, the ability to attract and retain talent, a critical mass of smart professionals and super-creatives, excellent science institutions, universities and schools, vibrant arts and culture and a first class regional, national and international transport.
It’s a tall order. Even the best of the Britain’s second-tier cities would struggle to deliver all this. None of them is big enough – and we know that in modern economies size does matter. Geoffrey West, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute, has analysed the mathematics of cities and says that there is a rule that holds firm in cities across the world.
According to West, each doubling in size of a city brings with it a 15-20% increase in wages, number of patents filed, the number of highly creative people employed, and an increase in efficiency of transport systems, among others. At the same time there is a matching increase in crime and pollution – but the benefits of higher wages and greater opportunities outweigh these disadvantages.
CAN TRANSPORT DRIVE THE NORTH FORWARD?
London reflects this urban mathematics. Outside the Greater London region there is perhaps only one place in the UK where these economies of scale could be replicated: in the heavily urbanised east-west belt that stretches from Liverpool, through Manchester and over the Pennines to Leeds. These three city regions have scale, dignity and presence. They also have a massive asset in Manchester International Airport. Their universities are among the country’s leading research institutions and decent housing is affordable – especially for the young professional families now being priced out of London’s housing market or forced to accept crippling commuting and mortgage costs.
Manchester and Leeds are dynamic cities with a strong track record in delivering new jobs. Liverpool has recorded the highest rate of private sector jobs growth of any Core City between 2010-2012, at 5.8%, greater even than London. Cities Outlook 2014
Higher speed rail connections between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds (and perhaps Sheffield) could reduce the Liverpool-Leeds journey time to only 50 minutes, bringing together the cities’ labour markets, generating critical mass and driving the creation of agglomeration economies from bringing the cities closer together.
THE PLAN EXISTS, BUT LITTLE ACTION YET
Peter Hall, David Thrower and I set out detailed proposals for “High Speed North” in April 2014, building on the extremely modest Northern Hub investment and electrification between Liverpool and Leeds which is already committed or in progress.
These began with the introduction of the Pendolino “tilting trains”, required to cope with the steep gradients and sharp curves on the trans-Pennine route. It also included a reintroduction of four-tracking – a railway dual carriageway, with two tracks travelling in each direction – to provide greater capacity and allow fast trains to overtake slower services. The proposals also called for local trains in Manchester to be rerouted onto new sections of the Metrolink tram system.
For later stages of the project, we proposed a new 20-mile route from Warrington to Liverpool, which would become part of the High Speed North network and a vital high speed connection from HS2 to the centre of Liverpool, increasing capacity on an increasingly busy passenger and freight route. And finally, a new 13-mile “base tunnel” under the Pennines from Manchester to Huddersfield – startling as it may sound, new rail tunnels are not uncommon in other countries such as Germany.
The evidence we have seen on comparable tunnels suggests a range of construction costs between £1.5 and £4 billion. London’s Crossrail, which is of similar length, has cost £16 billion.
The chancellor’s Manchester speech this week did bear an uncanny resemblance to our earlier ideas. Was it plagiarism, thought leadership or just a bizarre coincidence? We don’t know and we don’t mind. For once, the government is running with a big, imaginative and relatively inexpensive idea.
To be sure other things need to happen in these northern cities. But the Chancellor’s proposal should be explored further, not dismissed as another bright idea that will end up in a cupboard after the next general election.
Ian Wray is a Trustee of the Town and Country Planning Association, a member of the Royal Town PIanning Institute General Assembly, and a Visiting Professor and Visiting Fellow at Liverpool University.
Small Business, Big Benefits
Director of Aeolian & 20 Miles More
Small businesses in the Liverpool City Region no longer have small ambitions. My business, Aeolian, although having fewer than 10 employees provides strategic IT consultancy to global companies like the Shell, with over 92,000 employees.
The Internet and has greatly helped with this – conference calls and live meetings mean we can work efficiently but not be in the same city let alone office. However, building business requires trust and relationships, and that requires meeting people. I need to meet customers, predominantly outside of the City Region: in London, across the North and in Europe.
Liverpool does suffer from poor rail connections. We are the only major English city with just one train per hour throughout the day to London and we have precious few direct services to other UK cities. If Liverpool is to remain competitive, then we need excellent rail links to the UK’s major cities and also to Manchester Airport.
That’s why HS2 is such an important issue for small businesses like mine. If Liverpool were linked to HS2 then we would have faster, more frequent services to London and Birmingham. Any Liverpool link would almost certainly be the start of an HS3 network, linking us to Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and beyond; that’s a market of over 14 million customers and skilled employees. It could also provide a super-fast link to Manchester Airport, linking Liverpool to even more international destinations.
We all know that we can’t rely on roads. Congestion makes travel times excessive and unreliable and it’s a problem that is only going get worse. I find trains a more productive form of travel as I can catch up on work whilst on the move.
Getting a high-speed rail link would greatly boost our local prosperity, by around £400m a year. It would bring 26,000 additional jobs and 20,000 more residents; a massive boost to local businesses.
That’s why I’m in favor of Liverpool being directly linked to the high-speed rail network and back the call for 20 Miles More.
BUILDING A LONG-TERM FUTURE
Chief Executive, Downtown in Business
Despite the fact that the project is one of the most important infrastructure schemes ever proposed for the north of England, there remains a huge amount of apathy from business leaders to the much discussed and debated High Speed 2.
This is largely because the new fast tracks from London to the North are not likely to be laid anytime before 2026, with full completion not due until 2032. Add to that timescale the inevitable delays that seem to accompany every major British infrastructure project, and we’re more likely looking at 2035, by which time many of us will be eligible for a senior citizens rail card – if we’re still here at all.
However, this is to miss the point of how the North and its great cities and regions can market, promote and attract investment.
Speaking to several overseas visitors and potential investors over the past few weeks at the International Festival for Business in Liverpool, and it is interesting to note that they are vaguely curious about the past ten years; certainly interested about the next ten; but most quizzical about what strategies and plans are in place for the next twenty five years.
If you are representing a company that is looking to relocate or establish a major brand in a new city, then it is not unreasonable for you to want to be confident that your investment is being made in a place that has a sustainable, long term future.
This is why the winning of the argument about HS2 is so crucial. And then HS3 on the back of it, to better connect northern cities together.
Getting to London thirty minutes quicker may or may not be a killer HS2 argument for many, but HS3, the ability to then connect Manchester to Leeds on modern, high speed trains and tracks must surely win the approval of any serious business leader in the north.
Whilst London continues to plough hundreds of millions of pounds improving its infrastructure, and is squabbling not about ‘if’ a new airport but ‘where’, there is not a whisper of discontent from the Capitals chattering classes or the Westminster political fixers. Money spent in the south, it seems, is unquestionably well spent.
The nonsense spoken of in terms of the costs surrounding HS2 must be seen as what they are – an antiquated vision of a dilapidated, slow moving north, grateful to be kept afloat by the crumbs from an ever growing, indeed overflowing, South East table.
Of course the renaissance of our big cities in modern times, Leeds, Liverpool and particularly Manchester, has been remarkable. But for us to continue and indeed accelerate the progress of our region, then investment not only in rail, but on our road networks too, is absolutely essential.
HS2 and HS3 may not be here in your lifetime – but those international companies and investors want to be confident that it will be here at some point. And that is why HS2 is important now, and why we must fight enthusiastically for it to be delivered.