George Osborne offered one vision of devolution – but One Yorkshire wants another

Yorkshire: site of the battle for devolution’s soul. Image: Getty.

All eyes are now on Yorkshire. As the government’s devolution programme runs out of steam, England’s largest county has become the battleground for competing visions of what a devolved England might look like.

On one hand is a vision of devolution based on the big cities like Sheffield and Leeds; on the other, is the ‘One Yorkshire’ vision, where power is devolved to the larger regional scale to create a more inclusive form of development that addresses the needs and aspirations of communities beyond the big cities.

What is at stake in this debate?

Shortly after the 2015 General Election, building on his earlier launch of the Northern Powerhouse, the thenn Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, proclaimed his ambition to roll-out devolution across England by creating “metro mayors” for England’s biggest cities. Speaking in Manchester, Osborne was clear that the refusal to introduce a metro mayor would preclude the devolution of power from Westminster.

The location for the speech was significant. For Osborne, Manchester presented a successful model of economic development; he had already secured the agreement of council leaders there to introduce a metro mayor, an arrangement dubbed “Devo Manc”.

In his speech, Osborne asserted that his was “a vision based on the solid economic theory”, arguing that, “There is a powerful correlation between city size and the productivity of its inhabitants.” Metro mayors, governing an entire metropolitan region, were crucial to unlocking economic growth, he claimed.

Osborne was echoing the idea that Britain’s cities have been held back by land-use planning restrictions. and because too much policy attention has been wasted on places that will never have the dynamism of big cities. Allowing market forces freer rein would accelerate their growth based on tech clusters and the attraction of knowledge workers, principally by facilitating the increased supply of housing.

Metro mayors, in other words, would be dealmakers focused on attracting property investors. These views gained strong backing from thinktanks such as the (London-based) Centre for Cities, and initiatives such as the City Growth Commission, led by Osborne’s ally, Lord Jim O’Neill.

The theory is not without merit – but its limits are now apparent and, since Osborne left the stage, fresh ideas have emerged to challenge the Whitehall orthodoxy.

The rethinking begins with the 2016 Brexit referendum result, which has been widely interpreted as pitching north against south and big cities against towns. Andrés Rodríguez-Pose of the LSE suggests we should understand Brexit as an instance of “revenge of the places that don’t matter”: the struggling mill towns, declining coastal resorts and former coalfields that have been largely untouched by the growth in big cities.


In England, the neglect of these places has led to the accumulation of social, economic and political problems for the whole of society. Expecting people in these places to move to big cities is unrealistic and unreasonable – not just because it is unaffordable but because it requires them to abandon the strong community networks they rely upon.

Moreover, multiplying towers of glass and steel and cranes on the skyline offer a narrow vison of development. They contribute to short-term improvements in indicators such as GDP and benefit property owners, but also generate increased inequality within and between places, excluding those who cannot get on the housing ladder because they are trapped in low paid jobs.

Labour MP Rachel Reeves has called for a stronger focus on the ‘Everyday Economy’, those sectors that impact of the lives of people away from the tech hubs and luxury flats. Meanwhile, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown how reliable and affordable local bus services are crucial to the economic development of disadvantaged places; and improving bus services requires institutional and regulatory changes best achieved at the regional scale. As the Centre for Towns has shown, tackling problems of ageing and ill-health are among the pressing problems in disadvantaged places. Rebuilding material and civic infrastructure – the ‘foundational economy’ – in local communities is a key political task.

New research suggests that large cities are not always the most dynamic engines of growth, and that some smaller and medium-sized cities and rural areas have outperformed them. The OECD cautions against focusing only on “core cities”, identifying “agglomeration costs” such as problems of housing affordability, infrastructure shortages and rising pollution and congestion. It advocates the benefits of well-connected regions of rural communities and networks of smaller, networked cities. Even highly disadvantaged communities contain assets and networks that could become the focus of development.

The idea that economic development can be left solely to market forces is the root of many of our problems, but still grips many of our political leaders. Part of the argument for One Yorkshire concerns the strength of its identity. Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council, has dismissed the idea of One Yorkshire as based on “nostalgia, not economic reality,” while Lord O’Neill has rejected it as “chest-beating slogans”. But Yorkshire identity cannot be denied, nor can it be trumped by appeals to an economic model that does not deliver for enough people. The Sheffield Citizens’ Assembly showed a clear preference for a Yorkshire scale of government. 

Yorkshire identity is not just a potentially powerful international brand but represents civic capital and the basis for a shared collective project. Bavarian identity, expressed among other ways through its powerful state parliament, does not appear to have prevented Munich from becoming one of the world’s most prosperous and liveable cities. Indeed, the Nobel Laureate George Akerlof, states that a sense of identity, as much as price signals, shapes our economic decision-making. It can underpin a sense of common purpose and influences behaviour in ways that conventional economists overlook.

Luxury flats and high-end offices in city centres are insufficient to raise living standards in the regions. Leeds City Council’s decision to develop an inclusive growth strategy is a recognition of this. One Yorkshire is also a response to the weaknesses of developer-led, city-centric policies.

This is not to deny that cities are important, but rather to suggest the regional scale is able to address links between dynamic places and their hinterlands, smaller cities, towns and coastal and rural areas. The appeal of One Yorkshire lies in its promise a more holistic, integrated and inclusive economic and social vision for the region. It remains to be seen which vision of devolution will triumph, but the choices are clear.

John Tomaney is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at University College London.

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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