Why do businesses continue to cluster in London?

London! City of dreams! Image: Getty.

You don’t need to be an economist to know that businesses tend to cluster together in cities: 14th Century Ghent was famous for woollen cloth, 15th Century Florence for its fine arts and by the 16th Century Bordeaux was already a wine city. In the 17th Century, Delft was known for its pottery, while 18th Century Venice specialised in fun – opera, carnivals, fine food and ‘courtesans’ – and 19thcentury Manchester in cotton mills. In the 20th century, L.A. became the centre of the US film business, just as Detroit did for the car industry. 

As the understanding of the economics of urban agglomeration has spread, so city leaders and their economic advisers have come to see their job at least in part as preserving their city’s edge in one “cluster” or another or incubating new clusters.

This is a helpful way of thinking, but in the case of a global city like London it also has its limits. London is a teaming cluster of clusters. Yes, the city has particular strengths in creative industries, financial and business services, tourism and higher education, among other things. Each of these has its own particular set of opportunities and issues, and which demand particular attention from city leaders and policy makers.  But there are so many of these clusters in London, and they are so inter-connected, that it’s hard to make this a way of organising economic strategy.  

Last week Centre for London published a report that offers a different and perhaps more useful way of thinking about the capital’s economic specialism. The research looks at the role that headquarters play in the London economy. 

There are good reasons after all for any city to want to grow, attract and retain head offices. Headquarters create highly paid jobs and tax revenue and feed valuable professional and business service clusters. They attract a lot of business visitors. Bosses are less likely to move a headquarters to another city than they are a “second tier” function. Headquarters are “sticky”.  And headquarter functions, like strategy, governance, HR, comms and public affairs, are less vulnerable to automation than other business functions. 


Moreover, London’s headquarter economy has boomed. Between 2003 and 2018, London was the top ranked destination globally for foreign direct investment into head offices, measured by number of projects. The big multi-nationals have overwhelming chosen London as their European head offices. Employment in head office functions has grown faster than even fast growing and valuable sectors like accountancy and consultancy. Indeed, if London has a leading sector, it’s not financial, business or creative industries. It is headquarters. Headquarters are to London’s economy what steel-making was to Victorian Sheffield, or digital technology is to Silicon Valley. 

But the single most important factor in explaining the rise and rise of London as a headquarter city has been its ability to attract talent at every level of business – much of it from the EU.  In centuries past, businesses clustered together in cities because the goods needed in manufacture were cheaper in cities, and cities provided an accessible market for finished products. 

But the modern service industries in which London and other global cities specialise in don’t depend on raw goods or access to customers in the same way. They don’t rely heavily on raw goods and internet allows them to sell their services around the world.  What businesses are looking for in a head office destination is a good pool of highly skilled workers. As one property broker we spoke to put it, “Head office decisions are probably 90 per cent about people.” Finding a location that appeals to a modern skilled, and ultimately mobile workforce is therefore essential.  

Both the Conservative government and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party have prioritised preserving the free flow of goods in their approach to Brexit – in part because they are rightly worried about the damaging effect barriers to trade in goods would have in the UK’s poorer industrial heartlands.  But if we want to maintain London’s invaluable role as the world’s leading head office capital, we need to preserve the flow of talent as well.

Ben Rogers is director of the Centre for London.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.