The UK’s economic geography, outside London, is marked by small, prosperous cities in the south and east, and large, poor cities everywhere else. This leads to a dilemma for policy makers – should we try and make the small, successful, cities, bigger, or do the work needed to make our big cities more successful? The government’s emphasis seems to have swung back to expanding successful places in the South and East, with a particular focus on Cambridge.
Cambridge is undoubtedly a great success story for the UK, and potentially a huge national asset. Decades of investment by the state in research has resulted in an exemplary knowledge-based economy, where that investment in public R&D attracts in private sector R&D in even greater proportion. Cambridge has expanded recently, developing a substantial life science campus around the south of the city, moving engineering and physical sciences research to the West Cambridge site, and developing a cluster of digital businesses around the station. But its growth is constrained by poor infrastructure (water being a particular problem), aesthetic considerations in a historic city centre (which effectively rule out high rise buildings), and the political barriers posed by wealthy and influential communities who oppose growth.
We need an economic reality check too. How much economic difference would it make, on a national scale, if Cambridge did manage to double in size – and what are the alternatives? Here’s a very rough stab at some numbers.
The gross value added per person in Cambridge was £49,000 in 2018, well above the UK average of £29,000 . In Greater Manchester, by contrast, GVA per person was about £25,000, well below the UK average. This illustrates the’s UK unusual and sub-optimal economic geography – in most countries, it’s the big cities that drive the economy. In contrast, in the UK, big second tier cities, like Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow, underperform economically and in effect drag the economy down.
Let’s do the thought experiment where we imagine Cambridge doubles its population, from 126,000 to 252,000, taking those people from Greater Manchester’s population of 2.8 million, and assuming that they are able to add the same average GVA per person to the Cambridge economy. Since the GVA per head in Cambridge is so much higher than in GM, this would raise national GVA by about £3 billion.
In the overall context of the UK’s economy, with a total GVA of £1,900 billion, £3 billion doesn’t make a material difference. The trouble with small cities is that they are small – so, no matter how successful economically they are, even doubling their size doesn’t make much of an impact at a national scale.
As an alternative to doubling the size of Cambridge, we could raise the productivity of Greater Manchester. To achieve a £3 billion increase in GM’s output, we’d need to raise the GVA per person by just over 4.2%, to a bit more than £26,000 – still below the UK average.
That’s the importance of trying to raise the productivity of big cities – they are big. Relatively marginal improvements in productivity in Greater Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and the West Midlands, Sheffield, Glasgow and Cardiff could cumulatively start to make a material difference to the economy on a national scale. And we know where those improvements need to be made – for example in better public transport, more R&D and support for innovative businesses, providing the skills that innovative businesses need, by addressing poor housing and public health.
I do think Cambridge should be encouraged and supported to expand, to accommodate the private sector businesses that want to take advantage of the public investment in R&D that’s happened there, and to give the people they need to work for them somewhere affordable to live.
But, as Tom Forth and I have argued in detail elsewhere, we need more centres of R&D and innovation outside the Greater Southeast, particularly in those places where the private sector already makes big investments in R&D that aren’t supported by the public sector. The government has already made a commitment, in the Levelling Up White Paper, to increase public investment in R&D outside the Greater Southeast by a third by 2025. That commitment needs to be delivered, and built on by the next government.
Finally, we should ask ourselves whether we are fully exploiting the great assets that have been built in Cambridge, not just to support the economy of a small city in East Anglia, but to drive the economy of the whole nation. How could we make sure that if a Cambridge semiconductor spin-out is expanding, it builds its factory in Newport, Gwent, rather than Saxony or Hsinchu? How can we use the huge wealth of experience in the Cambridge venture capital community to support nascent VC sectors in places like Leeds? How could we make sure a Cambridge biotech spin-out does its clinical trials in Greater Manchester , and then then manufactures its medicine in Cheshire or on Merseyside?
Two things are needed to make this happen. Firstly, we need place-based industrial strategies to build the innovation, skills and manufacturing capacity in relevant sectors in other parts of the UK, so these places have the absorptive capacity to make the most of innovations emerging from Cambridge. Then, we need to build institutional links between the key organisations in Cambridge and those in other emerging regional centres. In this way, we could take full advantage of Cambridge’s position as a unique national asset.
. Data here is taken from the ONS’s Regional Gross Value Added (balanced) dataset and mid-year population estimates, in both cases using 2018 data. The data for local authority areas on a workplace basis, but populations are for residents. This probably flatters the productivity number for Cambridge, as it doesn’t take account of people who live in neighbouring areas and commute into the city.
At another limit, one could ask what would happen if you doubled the population of the whole county of Cambridgeshire, 650,000. As the GVA per head at the county level is £31.5k, quite a lot less than the figure for Cambridge city, this makes surprisingly little difference to the overall result – this would increase GVA by £3.15 bn, the same as a 4.2% increase in GM’s productivity.
Of course, this poses another question – why the prosperity of Cambridge city doesn’t spill over very far into the rest of the county. Anyone who regularly uses the train from Cambridge via Ely and March to Peterborough might have a theory about that.
. The recent government report on commercial clinical trials in the UK, by Lord O’Shaughnessy, highlighted a drop in patients enrolled in commercial clinical trials in the UK of 36% over the last six years. This national trend has been bucked in Greater Manchester, where there has been an increase of 19% in patient recruitment, driven by effective partnership between the NIHR Greater Manchester Clinical Research Network, the GM devolved health and social care system, industry and academia.