Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by Professor Neil Ward, Centre for Rural Economy,[37] University of Newcastle upon Tyne (RG 33)


  1.1  This memorandum addresses the Committee's questions about the potential for new arrangements such as city regions, and their wider impacts. It briefly explains the history of ideas about city regions and argues that city regions are being promoted as articles of faith rather than on the basis of a clear and convincing rationale for their utility as a means of economic development or a unit of governance. It argues that the analysis of city regions has suffered from overly-abstract conceptions of the functioning of economic activity and highlights risks in the simplistic and blanket application of the city region idea, especially for those settlements (be they small cities, towns or rural areas) that are currently cast as peripheral to city regions.


  2.1  There has been increased interest in the idea of "city regions" among economic development professionals in England over the past couple of years. This is largely a consequence of the loss of political momentum behind the processes of decentralisation and devolution to the English regions. The notion of city regions has become a feature of academic debates about economic development, both in newly industrialising countries and advanced economies. The term is not a new one. It was first used by Patrick Geddes (1915) nearly a century ago to describe the economic and social geography of the growing conurbations in Britain.[38]

  2.2  The analytical underpinnings of the current interest in the city region concept have been far from clear. City regions are being adopted as articles of faith by their exponents, both nationally and within the regions of England. There is an urgent need for a wider, more open and much more thorough discussion about the concept.

  2.3  This memorandum explores the development of interest in city regions in the UK. It then examines the role of the city region as an orienting framework for regional growth in the North of England. The paper concludes by reflecting on the potential implications of the city regions approach for sustainable regional development and especially for the North.


  3.1  Although the term city region has been in use for almost a century, there have been particular periods of heightened interest. Three such periods can be identified, each corresponding to notable phases in the development of urban and regional planning.

  3.2  The first phase (in the first half of the twentieth century) was characterized by the settlement planning responses to the massive socio-economic changes in the late nineteenth century, when the rapid urbanisation of population and economic activity transformed the geography of Britain. The earliest use of the city region concept is found in an essay by Geddes (1915), Cities in evolution, which examined city development and the new urban geography of industrial Britain. Geddes pointed to the growth processes that were enlarging industrial towns and cities and argued they would ultimately result in their gradual unification into vast city regions. The term "city region" essentially applied to the emerging conurbations—a word coined by Geddes. Eight were identified, all of which were based on industrial expansion and growth stemming from rail transport. These were: Greater London, Lancaston (Liverpool to Manchester), West Riding (Huddersfield, Bradford and neighbours), South Riding (centred on Sheffield), Midlanton (capturing the growth of Birmingham), Southwaleston (Cardiff to Swansea), Tyne-Wear-Tees (Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough), and Clyde-Forth (Glasgow to Edinburgh).

  3.3  A second phase of heightened interest in city regions began in the post-war period. The key socio-economic changes of the time, and particularly greater personal mobility through wider car-use, were calling into question the pattern of local government. The Redcliffe-Maud review of local government revisited the concept of city regions and the claims about its potential utility in delivering larger-scale strategic planning that integrated rural and urban areas. The Ministry of Housing and Local Government had argued that the city region should be the planning unit of the future. City regions, as all-purpose authorities, would cover the entirety of England and be 30 to 40 in number. The Commission's report proposed a system of 58 new unitary authorities and three metropolitan authorities outside London. A dissenting note by one of the Commissioners, Derek Senior (Cmnd 4040-I, 1969)[39], raised questions about the city region concept and its ability to deliver urban and rural governance in an integrated way, and instead proposed a two-tier system with 38 city regions of varying size with 148 districts.

  3.4  The main difficulty with the concept was the relationship between rural and urban areas, and this difficulty ultimately led to its failure in being adopted as the new local government structure following the change of government in 1970. The Commission noted that some witnesses were "disturbed by the possibility that the city region might imply urban domination of the countryside. Others criticised the city region as a concept which did not accurately reflect conditions in the more rural parts of the country" (ibid, para 119).

  3.5  Later, Coombes and colleagues at the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies (CURDS) at the University of Newcastle developed work on functional urban regions for individual cities and the national urban system.[40] Essentially, such areas were constructed through analysis of daily urban systems, commuting patterns to employment cores with boundaries identified as a result. In developing urban regions as a tool for exploring functional relationships, two pre-requisites were identified: self-containment of activity and power of internal control. "The only candidate . . . at the intermediate scale between household and state [possessing these characteristics] is the city region," it was argued (Coombes et al, 1982, pp 69-70).

  3.6  The recently renewed interest in the city regions concept dates to academic and policy debates that have been underway since the mid-1990s. However, the election of the Labour Government in 1997 and its programme for decentralisation and devolution gave new impetus to efforts to understand the dynamics of economic and sustainable development in the English regions and at the sub-regional levels. This phase is essentially driven by an interest in economic development, and particularly in the drivers of economic development among England's larger cities. However, the recent stalling of regional devolution in England has also served to fuel interest among those interested in new models of sub-national governance.

  3.7  It is worth reiterating that the first two phases of interest in city regions were the product of profound changes in the economic and social geography of Britain, first as a consequence of urban industrialisation and the development of the railways, and second as a result of the growth of the motor car. The rapid growth of cities and of urban economies inspired Geddes's work. The revolution in personal mobility helped prompt the Redcliffe-Maud review. The current context is also one of profound social and economic changes, this time as a result of globalisation and the ICT revolution. Yet the current preoccupation with city regions seems to be more about shoring up the settlement patterns of the past. The idea that city regions are at the cutting edge of a new age of urban economic competitiveness in a globalising world is open to question, not least because the technologies that are playing such a key role in current socio-economic changes can be seen as fundamentally decentering technologies. ICT allows people to live, work and run businesses in polymorphic urban forms.


  4.1  The major regional cities of England—Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield—have collectively become known as the "Core Cities" group and have become the focus of government attention in its attempt to deliver urban renaissance (sustainable urban living and working environments) and greater regional economic competitiveness (aiming to reduce the gap between regional growth rates and increase national and regional growth capacities). Central to the core cities initiative is the claim that cities play a major, pivotal role in advanced European economies, particularly in determining the economic performance of their regions.[41] However, this claim is not well-founded and not well-researched.

  4.2  In the North of England, city regions have been given new impetus through the Northern Way Growth Strategy, launched in 2004.[42] This pan-regional initiative involves the three northern regions (the North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber) in a growth strategy to raise the economic performance in the North. A key orienting principle in the Northern Way is to focus efforts on eight "city-regions" (Liverpool-Merseyside; Central Lancashire; Manchester; Sheffield; Leeds; Hull and the Humber Ports; Tees Valley; Tyne and Wear).

  4.3  The city-region approach adopted in the Northern Way is strongly influencing the work of the three Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) for the Northern regions. In the North West and North East regions, in particular, city regions feature prominently in the new Regional Economic Strategies (RESs) for the period 2006-16. In the North East, the city region concept is also the central concept in the new Regional Spatial Strategy. RDA investment priorities, and regional land use planning priorities, are being reconfigured from the perspective of strengthening the economic performance of city regions. It is therefore fair to say that the city region concept is already having a deterministic influence on the planning of regional development. However, this is advance of anyone really having a clear sense of what city regions are.

  4.4  The Northern Way Growth Strategy suggests that the city regions encompass "90% of the North's population and more than 90% of the North's current economic activity and economic assets" (para B1.1). However, the way that city regions are defined (even for the purposes of such statistics) remains shrouded in mystery. (Regional economic and spatial strategies tend to dodge the definitional issue by claiming that city regions have "flexible geographies"). Rural development interests in the northern regions also reasonably ask: what of the remaining 10%?

  4.5  There are two ways of seeing the role of rural areas (and their businesses, communities and landscapes) in the development of the North. One is as passive beneficiaries of the Strategy. This assumes that rural areas will benefit from overall regional growth, and that any interventions focussed on city regions will bring "trickle out" benefits to wider rural areas. A second is to see rural areas and their assets as active contributors to the Strategy and its success. This need not, of course, be to suggest that rural development can drive regional development, but it is to suggest that market towns and villages, and rural landscapes and assets, make a contribution to the offer of city regions and the wider North. This is not just as a space of consumption, but also as attractive locations for growth-oriented businesses.

  4.6  In the Northern Way Growth Strategy, the importance and contribution of rural areas is acknowledged in the introductory analysis. However, when it comes to the priorities and actions to deliver the Strategy, the role of rural areas all but disappears from view. In effect, the contribution rural areas might make to the development of the North is taken for granted, with the implicit assumption that rural assets will "look after themselves". It then follows that under the Northern Way nothing needs to be done to maintain or develop the role and contribution of rural areas for the wider benefit of the North.


  5.1  The Northern Way has been created in response to the economic dominance of south eastern England, as a way to reduce the marked inequalities in productivity and growth that exist between regions. However, the nature of the programme, including the rationale for the city-regions approach, has been poorly explained and justified, with the result that the initiative is being experienced as a top-down imposition, lacking in democratic accountability and legitimacy among the local communities of the North.

  5.2  The city regions approach embodied in the Northern Way and more widely at play in northern England suffers from three main shortcomings. Its rationale has not been sufficiently explained and justified, with the result that it looks like a faddish idea that has been imposed from "on high". The basis for what constitutes a "city region" has been left vague and obscure, with the result that all places beyond what sometimes gets called the "urban core" of the city region (including all types of towns and smaller cities, as well as rural areas) risk being marginalised from this process. Having places "beyond the city region" risks a two-speed, twin track approach to regional development, in which the positive benefits that flow from increased rural-urban relationships and interdependencies go unrealised and under exploited.

  5.3  The Government's agenda for decentralisation and devolution to the English regions looks to have run into the sand. Part of the reason for this is that the regions, as configured, made little sense as functional entities to the people within them. (Another reason, of course, was the timidity in the Government's devolution proposals). There is a real risk that in the policy vacuum left behind in the wake of the North East referendum city regions are picked up as an "off-the-peg" solution to the Government's regional problem. City regions currently have the air of a poorly thought-through fad and the mistakes of the Government's regional agenda must not be repeated. Any potential that the concept may have for delivering improvements in local and sub-regional development are likely to be undermined unless a much clear and stronger statement about how the risks of marginalising what have been cast as peripheral areas and their problems accompanies the city region approach.

  5.4  The city region is an essentially economistic notion of geographical solidarity, but cohesive communities derive their cohesion from things other than wealth. The failure of elected regional assemblies means that we are left with no significant means of enabling people to think they have a stake in regional governance, so we have seen a retreat to an economic model. The city regions approach, currently embodied in the Northern Way, reproduces a rural development problem. It establishes and reinforces out-of-date notions of geographical centrality and hierarchies and it actively marginalises places, consigning them to the periphery, dividing and polarising.

37   Centre for Rural Economy, University of Newcastle upon Tyne. This memorandum was prepared by Professor Neil Ward and Professor Philip Lowe. It draws upon research work conducted with Dr Jane Midgley, now at IPPR. Back

38   Geddes P. (1949 [1915]) Cities in Evolution, Williams & Norgate, London.  Back

39   See: Cmnd 4040 (1969) Report. Royal Commission on Local Government in England 1966-69, Chairman: The Rt Hon Lord Redcliffe-Maud; & Cmnd 4040-I (1969) Memorandum of Dissent by Mr D Senior. Royal Commission on Local Government in England 1966-69, Chairman: The Rt Hon Lord Redcliffe-Maud. HMSO, London. Back

40   Coombes M G , Dixon J S , Goddard J B , Openshaw S and Taylor P J (1982) Functional Regions for the Population Census of Great Britain, in Herbert D T and Johnston R J (Eds) Geography and the Urban Environment, Progress in Research and Applications, Vol V, pp 63-112. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester. Back

41   Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, ODPM (2004) Our Cities Are Back, Competitive Cities make Prosperous Regions and Sustainable Communities. Third Report of the Core Cities Working Group, ODPM, London. Back

42   Northern Way Steering Group (2004) Moving Forward: The Northern Way, First Growth Strategy Report. Northern Way Steering Group. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 15 March 2006