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Britain is one of the most urbanised nations on earth, and as the first nation to have created specialised industrial cities and to experience the impact of de-industrialisation, it hosts considerable diversity in terms of city size, function, and success. The UK’s experience of trying to rebuild post-industrial cities offers lessons for the whole world. But the UK also has many cities that were not industrialised to same degree as the great northern cities, and many of these have found the transition to a globalised knowledge and service economy easier to achieve.

British cities operate amid uneven governance arrangements overseen by a highly centralised state. Local governments in general have limited self-governing powers, although Greater London has a successful metropolitan government, while other larger cities such as Manchester and Edinburgh/Glasgow have devised collaborative governance mechanisms to cover their functional economic areas. The wide range of circumstances has prompted British cities to create many innovative tools to address urban challenges.

London’s enviable retention of its status as one of the most dynamic and innovative world cities stands out in the contemporary British metropolitan success. As well as dominating the British urban network, London is continually re-nourished with talent and resources from across the world. Its performance since the global financial meltdown confirms it possesses the credentials that enable a city to be a world-class business location over five different centuries.

International city rankings verify that London remains a world-class provider of financial and business services, and leads as a hub for science, medicine, and higher education. Not only is London the only British city to consistently occupy a presence in the top 50 world cities; it also remains ranked in the top three cities in the world across a host of categories. London’s achievements have confirmed the value of openness to ideas and people, combined with a powerful entrepreneurial spirit, and influence over the terms of trade (language, law, media, finance). Recent policy commitments, such as the congestion charge, Crossrail, and urban regeneration connected to the 2012 Olympic site and the Thames Gateway, reinforce the reputation gained through former innovations, notably the historic green belt metropolitan system, the commitment to parks, urban design and public space, as well as the transformation of London Docklands.

Beyond London, several of Britain’s larger former industrial centres have succeeded in re-establishing themselves as business-friendly cities with outstanding physical infrastructure. Manchester, Glasgow, Leeds and Birmingham have all benefited from a period of national government commitment to long-term urban regeneration based on public investment and dynamic private partnership. They have achieved excellent results through negotiated collaborative solutions between city administrations and private business. Public-private collaboration in master planning, joint venture vehicles, and shared investment funds has yielded considerable gains in the areas of sport, culture, retail and higher education infrastructure. This is reflected in these four cities’ improved display in the European Cities Monitor. Manchester ranks in the top 10 European cities now for external transport links, internal transport and qualified staff; Leeds has the best-value office space in Europe and has overtaken Stockholm and Vienna for inter-city transport connectivity; Glasgow’s tax and incentives policy consistently rates in and around the top 10; and Birmingham is now more recognised as a business location than Copenhagen or Moscow. While none of this quartet is consistently in the top 50 of any global indexes, they mostly rate in and around the top 100 in business-focused measures such as the Global Urban Competitiveness Project.

Elsewhere, a handful of cities in the UK are establishing themselves as knowledge economy exemplars, thanks to highly competitive clusters in advanced services, creative industries, higher education-led R&D, or science and medicine. While London is of course one of these cities, the capital is joined here by Edinburgh, Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford. In this quartet the role of higher education remains central to its knowledge economy status, while important quality of life interventions and upgrading of historic landmarks have been important for attracting and retaining talent. Figures from the GaWC on global firm connections show that Edinburgh is now in the same category as Porto and Doha for embeddedness in business networks, while Bristol is just behind, alongside the likes of Cologne and Belgrade. Other British cities showing similar potential include York, Warwick, Brighton, Cardiff and Bath. Together they account for the majority of the 11 British cities which host universities in the global top 100 in 2010.

The drive for other British cities to become knowledge hubs is aided by national urban life being very socially diverse by international standards and regarded as comparatively open and tolerant. The UK’s highly internationalised economy has attracted international talent in the form of immigrants, temporary workers, and long-distance commuters, while the EU expansion-induced influx of workers has alleviated key skills shortages in many cities. Larger British cities are home to highly impressive displays of inter-cultural celebration, backed by decisive local leadership on the benefits of diversity and policies to concentrate affordable housing and cultural facilities close to urban centres. A Eurobarometer survey of European cities in 2010 found that support for the presence of foreign populations was above average in the UK, led by London and Belfast.

A second tier of de-industrialised centres is visible in the UK. Belfast, Liverpool, Cardiff, Sheffield and Newcastle show signs of promise, with improved records in the areas of culture and environment. This is reflected in the Eurobarometer survey which finds satisfaction with outdoor recreation in Cardiff and Newcastle is in the top 10 of 75 cities in Europe, and 20th in Belfast.

Beneath this group are mid-performing medium sized British cities, whose performance is partly tracked by the European Smart Cities study. The report shows that these cities – including Leicester, Portsmouth and Aberdeen – have competitive economic attributes, such as labour market flexibility and entrepreneurial capacity, and are comparatively successful at attracting domestic and international visitors. However this tier of city in Britain is well down on the European average in terms of participation in community activity and levels of social cohesion. Housing and educational provision is also modest by continental standards, with on average higher average qualifications being achieved in similar sized cities in Germany and Holland, as well as a higher take-up of lifelong learning schemes.

Such problems are experienced even more profoundly in smaller industrial cities such as Hull, Burnley, Stoke and Blackpool which have slipped further behind, suffering from an acute lack of scale, economic diversity, and social identity. These cities face severe challenges to cultivate substantial knowledge clusters, to reverse the drain of talent, and to develop mechanisms to communicate and self-promote internationally with a united voice.

So at MIPIM 2011, as we celebrate the success of the ‘top order’ of UK Cities, it is time to consider what is required to assist the smaller industrial cities and towns to make a new future, and how they can leverage the success of their neighbours.

Top image credit : Photobank gallery


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