Where is England's fourth city?

Liverpool: a serious contender. Image: Getty.

The fight has long been raging between Birmingham and Manchester over the title of England’s second city. We've got the biggest population, cry the Brummies. We're a proper city and we've got more than one tram line! the Mancunians shout in return.

No-one is asking the real question, however: which is England’s fourth city?

Before we get to the more qualitative measures, let’s get our populations out on the table and measure them. There’s an obvious winner here, and that’s Leeds.

West Yorkshire is the only conurbation outside London, Birmingham and Manchester that has more than a million people living in it. That figure includes Bradford, Wakefield and Huddersfield, too – but the city of Leeds proper boasts over 750,000 people, which bumps it well above Manchester in the city population table, making it second only to London and Birmingham.

Leeds is definitely in contention then – but where else? Four of England’s other “core cities” – Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol and Sheffield – all feel to me like they have the potential to compete. (If anyone feels particularly strongly about Norwich or Plymouth, then feel free to angrily tweet at me.)

Let’s take a look at how each city stacks up for architecture, culture, growth and transport infrastructure.

Liverpool

Liverpool boasts a certain grandeur. If you arrive by train then you’re treated to a barrage of Grecian columns in St George’s Hall. Arrive from the Mersey and you get to see what a real waterfront looks like at Pier Head (take note, Southampton). 

There’s a branch of the Tate here, the Echo Arena and a couple of Premiership football teams thrown in for good measure. Merseyrail is a fairly extensive and frequent urban rail system, and the busy international airport adds to those fourth city vibes.

Sadly for Liverpool, the city isn’t keeping up with the rest in terms of population and business growth. Since 2004 there’s only been a 2.6 per cent increase in population (ONS, 2015) and a lot of the city can still feel very down-at-heel. That fly in the ointment aside, there’s a lot going to Liverpool.

Newcastle

Newcastle definitely feels right. There’s not much that beats arriving by train over the Tyne, and then hopping onto the city’s frequent and cheerful Metro.

Newcastle isn’t in the orbit of any other major city: it’s a true provincial capital, and that’s reflected in the confidence of its civic architecture, from the beautiful Tyneside Classical streets to the delightful mid-century Civic Centre.

There’s a solid 8 per cent level of overall job growth since 2004 (ONS, 2015), and it’s affordable too. When I hear how much my friends in the city pay for rent I do struggle to contain my urge to move north.

Newcastle's cultural prestige is secure, too, with the riverside attractions of the Sage and the Baltic as well as the Newcastle Arena. A strong contender for the glamorous title of England’s fourth city.


Bristol

Bristol is the only city in contention to be in the South of England, and it has reaped the economic fortunes that this has provided over the last few decades.

But where Bristol is ahead in growth and potential, it lags behind the other cities in its cultural and transport infrastructure. The city is better known for its independent culture than for big venues, and its ongoing struggle to build an arena on derelict ground next to the station is getting a bit embarrassing.

The city is similarly embarrassed by its lack of urban transport. A little two-carriage train runs irregularly on the branch line to Severn Beach, and although a guided busway is under construction, the city is at the mercy of First Bus’s notorious timetable changes when it comes to getting about without a car. Bristol is the second city of the south, sure – but it’s been knocked out of the park by the “northern powerhouse” in this race.

Sheffield

Sheffield doesn't hit you in the face with regional importance, especially not if you arrive by train. But the city has a fair number of impressive set pieces like the Arts Tower, Park Hill flats and Gothic Town Hall.  Culturally it holds its own with the Winter Gardens, Crucible, Arena and a good array of museums and galleries.

The Supertram is an impressive bit of urban transport, but most of the city is connected by the shoddy Pacer trains and a fractured bus system. Sheffield lost its airport in 2008, and instead finds itself tacked on to the end of Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield, which is a shame.

There’s lots to like in South Yorkshire. but I don’t think it has quite the right big city feel to be in contention against the likes of Liverpool and Newcastle. Sorry, Sheffield.

Leeds

With its huge urban area population, the title of fourth city is really Leeds' to lose. The city has plenty of great civic architecture to match its population, with the Civic Hall, Corn Exchange and Town Hall all offering their imposing presences, as well as some cracking regional cityscape like Kirkgate Market and the Victorian arcades. Leeds definitely feels like a big city.

Leeds is ahead of its competitors in terms of private sector job growth but it also tops the table for social inequality (ONS, 2015). The city's transport infrastructure is definitely one of the weak points here – there's no tram or urban transport other than buses and regional trains – which is a great shame. It doesn’t look as though there’s much in the pipeline either. Despite all this, Leeds is still a strong contender for the title.

There we have it then. A three-way battle between Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds. Keep it civil please.

Adam J. Smith is a student and writer from Southampton, UK. He tweets as @nfkadam

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Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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