Don’t let the ” allure of a grand project” divert attention say Centre for Cities

In a report out today, the Centre for Cities compare the Northern Powerhouse to similar regions in the Netherlands and Germany. They warn that the allure of a grand project should not divert policy makers from improving the cities of the North.

Comparing the region of England covered by the Northern Powerhouse to the areas of Randstad in the Netherlands and Rhine-Ruhr (Germany), which have been cited as inspiration for the Northern Powerhouse, they looked at modes of transport and commuting, as well as qualification levels in different parts of England.

Comparing commuting and transport links, the report says inter-city commuting links in the Rhine-Ruhr and Randstad areas are actually little better than in the North of England, with similar speeds of both the faster and the slowest trains.  The biggest difference was in the frequency of trains between the largest cities.  They argue that strengthening transport networks within Northern cities is a bigger priority than inter-city links and that boosting transport links within cities will have a bigger impact on improving productivity, by enabling people to access jobs across their wider city-region more easily.

In addition they looked at commuting patterns, and said that the research shows that there is little commuting between cities:

An argument often put forward about both the Randstad and Rhine-Ruhr area is that their transport links allow people to live in one city but work in another, suggesting that there would be benefits for the North of England in strengthening transport links between cities. But the data suggests that people don’t use the transport links in this way.

The share of people who both live and work within a particular city region is very similar across the three areas. As Figure 6 shows, 10 of the 13 city regions in the three areas have containment rates between 82 and 89 per cent. At 76 per cent, Utrecht is the only exception, mainly because of the large levels of commuting to the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area.

This means that commuting links between city regions tend to be quite low:

  • In the Rhine-Ruhr, Düsseldorf, located between the two other city regions in the area, has the largest share of residents commuting to other city regions. But this equates to no more than 6 per cent of total working residents to each of the other two, and is not dissimilar to the 4 per cent of working residents in Liverpool City Region that commute to Greater Manchester each day, or the 5 per cent of Sheffield City Region’s working residents that travel to the wider Leeds area to work.
  • Similar patterns are seen in the Randstad too. While 12 per cent of Utrecht’s working residents travel to Amsterdam, this is very much the exception – the next highest flow is the 5 per cent of Amsterdam residents that work in Utrecht.

Highly skilled workers do tend to commute further.20 But they tend to commute from the rural hinterlands of the cities they work in, rather than from other cities. Most city regions have stronger links between the central city and surrounding hinterland than with other city regions within the Northern Powerhouse. Figure 7 shows where Greater Manchester’s workers live. The spread of those working in high-skill occupations stretches further into Lancashire to the north and Cheshire and the Peak District to the south than for all workers. But even given this greater spread, 78 per cent of these highly skilled workers still choose to live in Greater Manchester.

These patterns, evident across all three areas, appear to suggest that if a worker wants to live in a city, they will mostly choose to live in the city that they work within. Otherwise they will choose to live in the countryside surrounding the city they work in, rather than another city.

This pattern is not repeated in London, but the report points out the both the wage-differential and the housing-cost differential is much much larger between London and its outskirts and Manchester and the surrounding areas.  This means that the trade-off between commuting time and housing costs is much less acute in Manchester than London, meaning people aren’t forced to live so far away from the centre of the Manchester, and so commuting distances are shorter.

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