By James Tout on 20 October 2016
Can UK cities overcome the ‘London factor’ and go global?
Dr Johnson may have had a point with his observation that someone who was tired of London was tired of life.
But the UK’s other large cities could be forgiven for being more than a little tired of London’s overweening dominance in our national life.
With business and politics, major cultural attractions and transport infrastructure so heavily concentrated in the capital, it’s little wonder that our other great centres have found it difficult to step out from behind its shadow.
Recently, we’ve seen a realisation, in initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine projects, that this state of affairs is economically unhealthy and needs to change.
But we’re still seeing things through the prism of London’s pre-eminence. The Northern Powerhouse’s express aim is to ‘rebalance’ the economy, suggesting at best a parity with London, within a UK context. And although hazily-defined, the NP takes in at least five major cities (Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle) in a wider region covering almost half the country, implying that only by clubbing together can they hope to even approach the stature of the capital.
If we look outside the UK, however, we see dozens of examples of non-capitals that have made a mark on the international stage in their own right.
So how do we bottle some of this success and replicate it here? Here are a few ideas:
- Create stronger metropolitan identities
Perhaps the best example globally of a city forging a new identity to show to the world has been Berlin. Physically divided until just 27 years ago, the city has overcome enormous disparities in wealth, political culture and spatial separation to regain its position in the top table of world cities.
Of course Berlin is a capital again now. But it didn’t have this status in West Germany, so in effect has had to create a new identity in just a couple of decades. This has meant welding vastly different neighbourhoods together into a cohesive whole, with significant investment in the built environment such as Potsdamer Platz (built in the no-man’s land between West and East Berlin), as well as new transport links. This has been made easier by its political status as a federal state within Germany – and, ironically perhaps, due to its previous ‘double city-state’ character pre-1990.
We can compare this with the UK’s major cities. Manchester and Birmingham, in particular, are now busy sorting out the details of their devolution deals with the government to create their respective Combined Authorities, with mayoral elections in both in May next year.
But on the ground, there’s still some work to do to create bigger cultural identities. In this, Manchester has perhaps been the more successful of the two so far, with a recognisable international brand aided by music and football. Meanwhile, some commentators, such as CityMetric’s Jonn Elledge, have suggested that Greater Birmingham still lacks a strong identity shared across its component parts.
New governance structures and transport links may go some way towards breaking down people’s mental distinction between, say, Birmingham and Wolverhampton.
But there’s also a hugely important communications challenge to help change attitudes. Comms – including inter-authority and stakeholder communications – needs to constantly underscore the fact that, on a global level, investors aren’t going to understand or care about the nuances of local particularisms. To attract them, UK cities will have to show a united front – respectful of historic identities, but not a slave to them. Changing the way we talk about city-regions, using the name of the urban core to refer to the whole area, may stick in the craw for some, but is a vital step in building an international image.
- Play to economic strengths
While deindustrialisation has greatly lessened the dependence of cities on single industries (think Manchester’s cotton, Glasgow’s shipbuilding or Birmingham’s cars), UK cities nevertheless tend to have concentrations of firms in particular sectors – old and new – that provide a springboard for global distinctiveness.
Worldwide, this specialisation has helped cities like Chicago, Shanghai and São Paulo gain a competitive advantage by successfully building on their status as historic manufacturing and trading centres to attract clusters of allied industries.
And in the UK, some of our cities are harnessing their heritage in innovative ways. Birmingham is developing a 150,000 sq ft Advanced Manufacturing Hub at Aston to create 3,000 new jobs. This makes sense in a city that’s still home to car manufacturers like Jaguar Land Rover, an extensive automotive supply chain of smaller firms and around 300,000 high value manufacturing jobs.
Manchester, meanwhile, is leveraging its growing reputation for expertise in life sciences, with the recent approval of the 2.8m sqft Greater Manchester Life Sciences Enterprise Zone, the largest clinical academic campus in Europe and home of Manchester Science Partnerships (MSP), a cluster of 170 companies in the life science, biotechnology, ICT and digital and creative sectors designed to support the commercialisation of research and technologies originating from the city’s universities.
In establishing a niche, UK cities could learn from the experience of the Dutch city of Eindhoven, which in recent years has invested heavily in turning itself into a hi-tech enterprise hub through the creation of Brainport, in which firms have invested over €13bn. As a consequence, Eindhoven has been named the world’s most innovative city, producing 22.6 patents for every 10,000 residents, making it by far the world’s most inventive city, according to the OECD (the second most inventive, San Deigo, produces 8.9 patients per 10,000).
In the digital age, with physical location diminishing in importance, it’s also worth highlighting how savvy businesses large and small can dramatically reduce their costs by moving part or all of their operations to cities outside London. According to recent report by JLL, office space averages £32/sqft in Birmingham and £34/sqft in Manchester, versus £70/sqft in The City and an eye-watering £120/sqft in London’s West End.
From a PR perspective, showcasing what you’re good at should be the cornerstone of campaigns to encourage inward investment and company relocation. Despite the freedom that digital technologies and the knowledge economy give firms, many still want the reassurance of a critical mass of similar companies and like-minded individuals that spark innovation and fuel productivity.
- Emphasise ‘liveability’
These days, economic factors alone aren’t the only ones that help attract investment and talent.
In the annual Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index, which assesses cities according to factors such as work-life balance, green space and ease of doing business, many non-capitals score highly, with Zurich, Hamburg and Rotterdam all making the top 20.
From a quality of life perspective, the UK’s regional cities have plenty to shout about. The average house price in Birmingham is around £145,000 compared to London’s £472,000, while Bristol was recently named one of the top environmentally-friendly cities globally and Edinburgh is consistently ranked as one of the top cities in which to live for quality of life thanks to its wealth of cultural attractions.
Communicating these benefits is an essential part of building international prestige that goes beyond headline average salaries. The PR goal for UK cities shouldn’t be to set themselves up as ‘mini Londons’, but as viable alternatives to London based on their own unique strengths.
- See demographics as a badge of honour
Our major cities are untypical of the UK as a whole – with much younger and more diverse populations.
Birmingham, for instance, is the youngest major city in the UK and, according to the 2011 census, is 47% non White British. Manchester, meanwhile, was recently dubbed the UK’s most multilingual city, with a study finding 200 languages spoken and 4 in 10 young people able to converse in more than one language. Both cities have higher proportions of university students in their populations than London, many of them international.
These attributes can be leveraged from a PR perspective by emphasising the ease with which firms and investors can draw on vast pools of talent and sought-after language skills so essential in the globalised economy.
- Be the destination – not a stop to somewhere else
Being a global city is, in part, about mindset. In former times, cities like Glasgow and Liverpool took pride in their status as ‘second/third/fourth city of the Empire’. With decolonisation and industrial decline, however, many lost their mojo. Fortunately, most of our regional cities are once again growing their populations and regaining economic vitality.
But they’ll struggle to truly strut their stuff on the world stage if they’re consistently painted as mere satellites of the ‘Dark Star’ (to use ex-SNP leader Alex Salmond’s phrase) of London.
Projects like HS2, while important in bringing much-needed investment to cities like Birmingham, nevertheless start from the premise of enterprise ‘fanning out’ from London to seek opportunities in places where costs are lower. But there’s the danger the effect could work the other way.
In addition, Combined Authorities, with greater strategic control over land use, should start pressuring the government to bring forward transport infrastructure investment that allows regional cities to exploit global opportunities. That might mean calling for further expansions of Birmingham or Manchester’s international airports instead of the myopic focus on capacity at Heathrow and Gatwick. Cities like Frankfurt and Guangzhou are served by major airports that underline these places’ role as economic centres in their own right, not subsidiaries of other places.
- Show that you’re addressing problems
A recent report and interactive data tool from the Centre for Cities shows that UK cities lag behind their continental competitors on a range of indicators – the majority trail on skills, innovation and productivity, and a number have an industrial mix that has more in common with cities in Eastern Europe than those in the West.
Leeds, for instance, has a similar population and economic structure to Rotterdam in the Netherlands and the German cities of Düsseldorf and Essen. But on Gross Value Added (GVA) per worker, it’s way down the list – coming 238th out of 330 cities in Europe, compared to Düsseldorf’s 32nd place.
Leeds is being proactive in addressing skills gaps. Its recently-launched Enterprise Advisors scheme, run by the city region’s LEP, has recruited over 100 volunteer business leaders who will work with a third of all schools in the region, supporting 3,500 pupils to gain work place skills and experience.
While wider issues around the education system will persist, it’s important from a PR point of view for cities to be showing international investors how they’re tackling the root causes of economic underperformance to equip their workforces with the practical skills that will increase their productivity and economic output.