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Small and medium-sized cities hold key to Northern Powerhouse future

Words: Huw Morris

Small and medium-sized towns and cities (SMCs) are crucial to the success of the government’s flagship Northern Powerhouse strategy and already contribute £82 billion a year to the UK economy, a new report argues.

The research, by think tank IPPR North, reveals these urban areas contribute more to the UK economy than Wales and Northern Ireland combined. Their particular strengths lie in advanced manufacturing, and energy and logistics, which are considered key elements of the Northern Powerhouse.

Growth rates in SMCs, defined as having populations of between 75,000 and 300,000, match those of their big city neighbours. This includes Burnley, Doncaster and Wakefield, while productivity is higher in Wigan than in Manchester.

However, many small and medium-sized cities face significant challenges from not being better connected to bigger places. The report - City systems: the role of smaller towns and cities in growing the Northern Powerhouse - argues that these challenges can be overcome by focusing on their economic strengths, tackling local skills shortages and working with their bigger neighbours.

The research calls on the government to work with SMCs in the same way it handles small and medium-sized enterprises by offering bespoke support to foster local strengths. It should also adopt a more “European” attitude to planning the economy - by recognising that European cities are much more interconnected -  instead of following US-style thinking which is more suited to countries with large distances between cities.

Crucial to this is to review the London-centric system of transport funding which favours major cities, and to recognise the role of smaller places in the wider urban ecosystem.

“In the same way small and medium businesses are now seen as vital to the British economy and the success of our big companies, we need to refocus policy on the North’s small and medium towns and cities, and not just the big cities – vital as they are,” said IPPR North director Ed Cox. “The evidence shows this is not ‘jam-spreading’ resources thinly but economically the right thing to do: Manchester needs a prosperous Wigan to succeed, and vice-versa.”

• A joint RTPI and IPPR North report, Blueprint for the Great North Plan, is to be launched at a joint event in Leeds on 17 June. Email [email protected] for more information.

Image of Wigan | Wikipedia, under Creative Commons