Paris used to be the world’s most visited city; now London is. Boris trumpeted this by waxing lyrical about the capital’s “outstanding mix of culture, art, music and sport”, as the French choked on their croissants. Boris speaks as if London is the centre of the world. Many tourists will depart these shores agreeing with him.
London’s success is a cause for celebration. Unfortunately however, it seems to be making us gloomier about everywhere else. Talk of the need for ‘rebalancing’ and the ‘lopsided economy’ now abounds. In Evan Davis’ BBC documentary, viewers are advised to “Mind the gap” between London and the rest of Britain. Hopping from one London development project to another, Davis draws our attention to the energy and growth of the capital. Meanwhile, when he does occasionally venture north, the backdrop is typically some dilapidated nineteenth century factory. ‘Global’ London is rendering everywhere else provincial by comparison. With every new skyscraper, London seems to put the rest in the shade that bit more.
However, while this ‘mind the gap’ narrative is valid up to a point, it is also highly misleading. It neglects the changes which have occurred in our major northern and midland cities since the turn of the millennium.
The most fundamental measure of a city’s health is whether people want to live in it. For most of the post-war era, British cities suffered from a relentless exodus of residents. Liverpool experienced the most dramatic of declines, with its population collapsing from 800,000 in the early 1950s to barely half that by the 1980s, prompting the infamous suggestion that the best which could be hoped for was “managed decline” for the city. All of the major conurbations outside of London experienced decades of shrinking populations, a phenomenon which continued well into the 1990s
Since 2001, this long term demographic trend has been decisively reversed. Between 2001 and 2011 the populations of Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Glasgow and Birmingham all expanded. In the same period, the population of Manchester local authority area grew by a whopping 19%. True, most growth rates were more modest – and below that of London – but they prove that our regional capitals are not destined to diminish.
Not only do people want to live in these cities again, they also want to visit them. The Rough Guide to England begins by emphasising that it is in Britain’s regional centres that many of the most exciting architectural and social developments are taking place, referring to this as a “northern renasissance”. While London is the most visited city in Britain by a long distance, the strongest recent growth in visitor numbers is to be found elsewhere. According to Visit Britain, Leeds welcomed twice as many visitors in 2012 as it did in 2001; Liverpool experienced an astonishing four-fold rise in the same period.
Every city offers a different mixture of things to do and see. Nevertheless, I think it’s possible to identify three key structural changes which have helped made our regional cities more attractive and welcoming. First, the hegemony of the car has been overturned. Our urban environments are increasingly pedestrian friendly, full of spaces where people want to spend time. The days of designing our cities for cars – often by slicing them in half with motorways – are long gone. Second, our cities are making better use of their historic and natural assets: witness the regeneration of Grainger town in Newcastle, the canals in Manchester and Liverpool’s waterfront. Third, our best retail developments – such as Leeds Trinity or Birmingham Bullring – are now taking place within city boundaries rather than marooned on their outskirts. As a consequence, people are being drawn into our cities rather than scattered across desolate retail parks.
Of course, this does not mean that everything is rosy. There are major disparities between London and our regional capitals. Other than London, Bristol is the only major city in Britain with GDP per capita above the national average. On rates of job creation and business start-ups London is a long way in front. Without a doubt, our regional cities have plenty of catching up to do. A new high speed rail for the north, as proposed by George Osborne, would help enormously.
Nevertheless, the pattern of renewal in our regional capitals is real and marks the reversal of decades of decline. Amidst all the talk of minding gaps and rebalancing, we would do well to keep sight of the urban renaissance already underway.
David Kirkby is a researcher at the think tank and campaign group Bright Blue