Too many small(ish) cities in Britain?

Interesting post (as ever) by Henry Overman at Overman discusses the perennial question of what impact urban policy can have on the economic performance of cities. The evidence suggests the impact is very limited. In discussing why this is so, alongside the usual suspects – planning constraints;  too much jam-spreading; the greater importance of ‘people factors’ as against ‘area effects’ – Overman discusses the role of pure size effects. One would expect the size distribution of cities to follow a regular pattern, with the second largest city half the size of the largest, the third city one-third etc (Zipf’s Law). But this does not hold for Britain. Moreover, the culprit is not the usual one of London being too big – becoming the ‘Great Wen of all’ in Cobbett’s phrase. Overman argues that London is the ‘right’ size, when compared with smaller cities. But Britain’s second-tier cites are too small – “The issue is that the rest of our urban population tends to be ‘spread out’ across a number of moderately large cities. Zipf’s law would require some of those cities to become much larger and some to become much smaller.” Overman concludes that “the policy mix of supply constraints and jam-spreading has led to cities like Manchester being smaller than they otherwise would have been.”

This pushes the policy question into a different and interesting place. Helpfully, from the point of view of my day job, it moves us on from ‘London-bashing’ towards a more productive way of thinking about the economic relationships between Britain’s cities. (See also But is it possible to imagine say Birmingham and Manchester expanding while other cities contract? And is better connectivity between second-tier cities, as was advocated by the now-defunct Northern Way grouping of RDAs and cities, and in contrast to the HS2 agenda of better connectivity to London, a second-order substitute for this?


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