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Core cities need to support levelling up

Levelling up is often cast as a North vs South or a London and SE vs other regions issue. Whilst there can be no debate that London and the SE outperform other regions in the UK based on numerous economic indices, eutopia’s VISTA index on place attractiveness also highlights that there is a need for levelling up within regions. This is likely to be compounded by COVID and the places that were previously disadvantaged are those that will be most susceptible to the negative side of the K shaped recovery.

The best performing cities in the UK from a place attractiveness perspective are reasonably dispersed as highlighted in the map below. The Vista index for overall place attractiveness shows that the worst indexing areas are often satellite towns and cities on the edge of these regions. This is not just a factor of scale – more than 40 influencing factors have been gathered across 108 towns and cities as part of the Vista model development to create an overall ranking.

The extent of the gap in place attractiveness is important between neighbouring cities and towns.

The biggest gap in place attractiveness in the UK within a region exists between Glasgow and Motherwell (a difference of 101 places on the place attractiveness ranking) closely followed by Manchester and Bolton – which shows a difference of 100 places on the same scale.

This trend is especially evident in the North West and North East but large gaps also exist for towns and cities across the UK as can be seen in the map. The graphic below highlights some of the specific regions.

There are some exceptions which have developed more as “independents” away from their core regional hubs. These include locations like Reading, Bath, Durham and Coventry. One of the common features of these towns, is that they have the legacy of a strong university offer and they all benchmark higher than average for investment and tourism so have a relatively strong offer across key place pillars.

Some key takeaways from this analysis.

  • Core cities success often has come at a price of their closest neighbours. Whilst there is necessarily a need for a regional core urban hub, not enough has been done to encourage economic dispersal on a regional basis.
  • More transparency is required on the gap between attractiveness of places in close proximity – and why this exists. In addition to overall place attractiveness, the Vista model also provides a segmentation for Investment, Tourism, Study and Liveability. The Investment segmentation for the best performing places highlights most of these core cities fit into the Industry 4.0 category versus the Enterprise Reboot category for some of their closest neighbours. But these are not peripheral areas and highlight a failure to address FDI dispersal over a protracted period.

The characteristics of this segmentation are outlined above and demonstrate one of the core issues underperforming places have faced has been the concentration of investment to the core cities.

What can be done to address the issues?

    1. A high level approach is not enough for levelling up. For example, establishing The Northern Powerhouse or Midlands Engine with focus on 4 or 5 core cities will not address the inequalities of these regions as a whole. It may in fact compound the issue. These regional initiatives had a genesis in inward investment related activity but that is not the only answer to levelling up locally and nationally.
    2. Better stakeholder collaboration at a local level. This is more than setting a broad vision for a region but a strategy that clearly sets out KPIs for underperforming towns and cities as part of local levelling up and how these will be achieved. This is likely to include agreement on a micro strategy for each area and the role it will play in a broader regional context. This differentiation aspect is critically important.
    3. The most problematic places will require the most radical interventions – and they may not always be obvious ones. Culture can be transformative and have a lasting legacy as demonstrated by Derry, Hull and Margate. The creative class has long since been a powerful catalyst for regeneration.
    4. Social enterprise is critical for communities with a legacy of economic deprivation. It helps to reduce welfare dependency and can act as change agents in communities.
    5. Health and wellbeing initiatives are also crucial and should be supported. Parkrun has been an amazing platform for community cohesion and wellbeing and has a grassroots, bottom up philosophy.

For a full Vista report on your location, including recommendations on how to improve your place attractiveness rankings, contact us.

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