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Region-wide success: Ensuring North West cities and towns grow together

Region-wide success: Ensuring North West cities and towns grow together

As the North West’s biggest cities plot sustained growth into the future, is enough being done now to ensure the region’s smaller towns aren’t left behind?

Words by Lawrence Saunders

A Centre for Cities report earlier this year found the number of people living and working in northern city centres has rocketed in recent decades.

According to ‘City Space Race’, it’s not the heart of London but the middles of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds where job and population numbers have been on the rise.

Manchester, which topped the table, experienced a 149% surge in city centre living from 2002-2015, as well as a startling 85% increase in job creation between 1998 and 2015.

“The success that Manchester city centre has experienced is as a result of certain polices and development plans coming to fruition,” says Richard Wharton, director for office agency at JLL’s Manchester office.

“Manchester has the biggest student population outside of London and companies moved into the city centre so they could tap into that graduate market.

“There was also a raft of speculative Grade A office developments which allowed companies to relocate without having to go through lengthy design and build programmes.

“Alongside the commercial schemes there has been a lot of residential PRS development which means people not only have a place to work, but a place to live.”

Manchester has the talent, the jobs and the office space so what, if anything, does it need to maintain its competitiveness in the years ahead?

“The big concern is whether the transport infrastructure can grow at a sufficient rate to accommodate the growth of the city,” adds Wharton.

“If you talk to anyone who works in Manchester and commutes in, they’ll say the transport network is a nightmare.

“At the moment it’s just hitting a bit of a bottleneck in terms of road and tram works.”

In October the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham announced a raft of measures aimed at easing congestion across the borough. They included having the Transport for Greater Manchester control room running 24/7 to send traffic information to sat navs, and a review into working hours on non-essential roadworks.

Despite these changes, the former MP for Leigh confessed he doesn’t have the power to “get a grip on the outdated transport system” and called on the government to do more.

Top-notch transport connections or not, ‘Big Four’ professional services firm EY expects the city to continue on its impressive trajectory. Last December it forecasted the destination to be the UK’s best performing city up until 2020.

The annual UK Regional Economic Forecast found that Manchester’s GVA will increase by 2.4% by 2020, putting it ahead of London and on a par with Reading.

Encouraging as predictions like these may be, is too much focus placed on the North West’s biggest cities at the expense of smaller areas? Are we moving forward together as a region?

“If we want the success of our cities to be shared with surrounding places there has to be a plan.”

Another recent Centre for Cities report, commissioned by the BBC, revealed that North West workers, on the whole, earn less than their counterparts in the South and the Midlands.

The study, which focused on built-up urban areas with a population of 135,000 or more, found that no town or city in the region is offering weekly wages that meet or exceed the national average of £539.

Some of the lowest rated towns were here in the North West, with Wigan and Birkenhead ranked third and fourth worst respectively.

Both towns are located near to larger, more affluent conurbations but appear not to benefit greatly from their near neighbour’s prosperity.

“Cities have always been agglomerators of key industries, infrastructure and jobs,” according to Cathy Parker, professor of marketing and retail enterprise at Manchester Metropolitan University.

“They accommodate important services and facilities in a spatially efficient manner. It makes sense to strengthen these forms of infrastructure and, because they need to serve a wide geographical catchment, concentrate them in and around major cities.

“Not every town or city can have its own banking sector or its own airport, etc.

“But this does not mean that every job, every shop, every cultural institution, every opportunity, has to be located in our cities.

“If we want the success of our cities to be shared with surrounding places there has to be a plan of how to do this. Too many core city strategies imply that the location is in competition with everywhere else.

“The language and vision needs to change to one of collaboration. Places need to be understood in a regional network, not as some random collection of winners and losers.”

For Wharton it’s a case of smaller towns and areas recognising their unique selling point (USP), and he highlights Birchwood Park as “probably the strongest out-of-town business park in the North West”.

“What’s it got? It’s got great motorway access – not every company wants to be city centre based,” he adds.

“Companies have to be more accessible to a workforce which might have to be a bit more mobile.

“Ultimately it can come down to parking, motorway access and great amenities including gyms and cafés.”

“The language and vision needs to change to one of collaboration. Places need to be understood in a regional network, not a random collection of winners and losers.”

But as Dr Christopher Dent, senior lecturer in economics and international business at Edge Hill University, explains, these smaller cities and towns can’t do everything.

“Their size limits them and they need to be quite clever when choosing niches which they can specalise in,” he says.

In an effort to help regenerate some of the North West’s struggling town centres, both Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region’s metro mayors have announced initiatives during the last 12 months.

Mayor Burnham’s Town Centre Challenge invites local authorities to bring forward a town centre of their choice, along with the plans they are seeking support to deliver, in order to address specific issues which have limited investment and redevelopment.

Stockport became the first to submit a nomination with proposals including a new multi-million pound transport hub, redevelopment of the town’s retail heart and new town centre living.

Bolton, Wigan, Bury, Tameside, Trafford and Salford councils have also proposed Leigh, Prestwich, Stalybridge, Stretford and Swinton respectively for the initiative.

Meanwhile, Burnham’s opposite number at the other end of the East Lancashire Road has allocated £5 million of funding for the five boroughs outside of Liverpool.

Possible beneficiaries of Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram’s cash boost include Birkenhead, Southport, St Helens, Runcorn, Widnes, Kirkby, Prescot and Bootle.

“Liverpool city centre is the economic engine of our city region and we will continue to support its development with strategic investments,” said Mayor Rotheram, announcing the Town Centre Fund in July.

“But just as we must help our city to succeed, we must also ensure that every part of our region thrives as well.

“Across our region so many of our towns have untapped potential. Our high streets face new challenges, with new technologies and changing customer habits, and must change in order to survive.”

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