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2 March 2020

Lisa Nandy is wrong: the UK’s big problem is that we haven’t spent enough on cities

The Labour leadership candidate’s argument is that focusing on cities has left towns behind. But the assumption it relies upon in cities doesn't work.

By Stephen Bush

Lisa Nandy makes the following arresting claim this morning: “The choice was made by the Blair government that cities were the engines of growth with the hope that the benefits would trickle out to surrounding towns. They haven’t.”

Is this true? I’m not convinced. The biggest problem is that Nandy is wrong to say that the benefits of regenerating cities have failed to translate to their neighbouring towns. It’s a narrative that struggles to explain the growing economies of, among other places, Slough, Reading, Crawley and Margate. Of course, what all those three towns have in common is that they are satellite towns of London.

What hasn’t happened, for the most part – though there are important exceptions to this story, too – is that the towns surrounding the United Kingdom’s other great cities have not experienced the same benefits as those surrounding London.  

But that isn’t because the model of city-led economic growth has failed Wigan but worked for Manchester. It’s because, as Tom Forth has shown, outside of London, the United Kingdom has some of the least economically productive cities in Europe. There hasn’t been sufficient growth from Manchester to “trickle out” to its neighbouring towns. The problem is that not enough has been done for Manchester – and that until that changes, the UK won’t get the same benefits that it does from London from any of its other towns. Don’t forget that even if you live in a flourishing town or city, the problems of struggling towns and cities are very much your own, because the housing crisis of London is in part an outgrowth of the jobs crisis outside of it. 

Why does that matter? Well, because there is a lively debate within the government and in parts of the Labour Party about how to regenerate towns. The debate takes as its central article of faith that successive governments have cared a great deal about cities and not enough about towns. The solution is therefore to spend more money and/or devolve more power to towns to fix the problem.

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But if your starting point is wrong, your direction will be too. It isn’t true to say that the big economic idea that cities would drive growth in towns hasn’t materialised. What is true to say is that the big economic idea of cities as engines of growth has never received the level of ambition and support that it would genuinely require for, say, Leeds, to deliver the scale of economic and social benefit for its nearby towns as London does for its satellites.  It is not a coincidence that Leeds, the largest city in western Europe without a mass public transit system, has failed to produce the level of concomitant benefits for Dewsbury, Pontefract and Wakefield as London has for its neighbouring cities.

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Nandy’s argument is that both the last Labour government and the present-one are too focused on the needs of cities. As an electoral appeal to voters in towns that makes a lot of sense, because all voters, regardless of whether they live, like to be told that they ought to have more spent on them and others, less. But as a policy critique or proposal about where the government should go, it doesn’t work. The problem is that both the last Labour government and the three Conservative-led governments since 2010 haven’t spent enough on cities – not that the cities-as-engines of growth model is fundamentally flawed.