Why is it so hard to define Britain’s city boundaries?

Sheffield. Image: Peter White.

Do you remember looking at a globe when you were young? I do: I remember looking at one at my grandparents’ house in the 90s. I looked at the countries on it, but didn’t recognise some of them. And some of them were bigger than I had imagined.

How could this be the case? I studied my maps at school, and came to learn that map makers like boundaries, certainty, and simplicity.

But I know now that the world is not so straightforward. Boundaries are a feature of all countries, regions and local areas. The establishment of governance structures such as Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and Regional Development Agencies, to drive economic growth, face multiple complexities with boundaries – and multiple ideas as to where those boundaries should lie.

There are inherent challenges with boundaries, specifically around data analysis and policy implementation. Local authorities, combined authorities and LEPs are not always helpful in either the analysis of a problem or the implementation of a solution.

Data analysis is complicated by further geographical units such as Travel To Work Areas (TTWAs), Nomenclature of territorial units for statistics (NUTs), output areas, wards, major towns and cities, postcode areas and other administrative areas such as primary care trusts – all of which cover different geographies and highlight the challenge of using bounded geographies.

Sheffield City Region LEP, for example, is made up of Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley, Doncaster, Bassetlaw, Chesterfield, North East Derbyshire, Derbyshire Dales and Bolsover. It is likely that this composition will shift following the LEP review.

But these boundaries already highlight a challenge for policy makers. Consider Derbyshire Dales, a local authority with natural areas and urban areas (and delicious puddings) which are the envy of the world. Policy makers in and working with Derbyshire Dales face a difficult position. The local authority contains populated areas including:

  • Hathersage in the north, which pivots towards Sheffield;
  • Bakewell, which is almost equidistant between Chesterfield and Buxton;
  • Matlock, which connectivity- wise faces Mansfield, Derby and Nottingham;
  • Ashbourne in the south, which is not far from Stoke-on-Trent and Derby.

This also shows that administrative boundaries can bind us too easily.  Confusingly, several “overlapping areas” for Local Enterprise Partnerships (e.g. East Riding, Cherwell, Derbyshire Dales) across the country are some of the fastest growing local economies. That shows that there is potentially no harm in being in two areas – or, even better, benefitting from it. Most local authority boundaries raise questions for economic development, planning and public investment professionals. It is also difficult to demarcate city boundaries and this can lead to frustration.

At a practical level, effective collaborations and partnership working can be uneasy where politics is involved. However, there is a strong rationale for more collaboration. We also need to appreciate the limits of imposed or imagined boundaries.

Business people often make the point that their business activities do not stop at administrative boundaries and often this fact is ignored. Initiatives or interventions are seen as a “closed system” when in fact they are anything but. Let’s widen our discussions and collaborate more.

Jonathan Guest is senior economic policy manager for the Sheffield City Region.



17 things the proposed “Tulip” skyscraper that London mayor Sadiq Khan just scrapped definitely resembled

Artist's impression. See if you can guess which one The Tulip is. Image: Foster + Partners.

Sadiq Khan has scrapped plans to build a massive glass thing in the City of London, on the grounds it would knacker London’s skyline. The “Tulip” would have been a narrow, 300m skyscraper, designed by Norman Foster’s Foster & Partners, with a viewing platform at the top. Following the mayor’s intervention, it now won’t be anything of the sort.

This may be no bad thing. For one thing, a lot of very important and clever people have been noisily unconvinced by the design. Take this statement from Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, from earlier this year: “This building, a lift shaft with a bulge on top, would damage the very thing its developers claim they will deliver – tourism and views of London’s extraordinary heritage.”

More to the point, the design was just bloody silly. Here are some other things that, if it had been built, the Tulip would definitely have looked like.

1. A matchstick.

2. A drumstick.

3. A cotton ear bud.

4. A mystical staff, of the sort that might be wielded by Gandalf the Grey.

5. A giant spring onion.

6. A can of deodorant, from one of the brands whose cans are seemingly deliberately designed in such a way so as to remind male shoppers of the fact that they have a penis.

7. A device for unblocking a drain.

8. One of those lights that’s meant to resemble a candle.

9. A swab stick, of the sort sometimes used at sexual health clinics, in close proximity to somebody’s penis.

10.  A nearly finished lollipop.

11. Something a child would make from a pipe cleaner in art class, which you then have to pretend to be impressed by and keep on show for the next six months.

12. An arcology, of the sort seen in classic video game SimCity 2000.

13. Something you would order online and then pray will arrive in unmarked packaging.

14. The part of the male anatomy that the thing you are ordering online is meant to be a more impressive replica of.

15. A building that appears on the London skyline in the Star Trek franchise, in an attempt to communicate that we are looking at the FUTURE.

14a. Sorry, the one before last was a bit vague. What I actually meant was: a penis.

16. A long thin tube with a confusing bulbous bit on the end.

17. A stamen. Which, for avoidance of doubt, is a plant’s penis.

One thing it definitely does not resemble:

A sodding tulip.

Anyway, it’s bad, and it’s good the mayor has blocked it.

That’s it, that’s the take.

(Thanks to Anoosh Chakelian, Jasper Jackson, Patrick Maguire for helping me get to 17.)

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

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