City regions, mega cities, connected economies…

My eyes lit up on reading this piece just now as it reminded me of a number of conversations I have had over the last couple of years.

The article talks about a future Scandinavian mega city reaching across Oslo, Gothenburg and Copenhagen covering 8 million people and a high speed rail link taking less than two and a half hours.

So the reference point for me was a number of discussions I had in my previous life at Centro imagining a city region from the Birmingham conurbation reaching to Manchester and Liverpool in 1 direction and Leeds and Sheffield in the other.  Essentially High Speed 2 would form the backbone of an economic powerhouse in the shape of a triangle with the West Midlands (2.8 million population) at the southern tip and the 2 northern points encompassing the 2 North West conurbations (3.4 million) and the 2 Yorkshire conurbations (2.4 million).  Indeed the burgeoning East Midlands conurbation of Derby/Nottingham (1 million population) would be connected into the HS2 hub at Toton and could also be incorporated.

This English mega city region of 9.6 million people, connected by HS2 – and indeed HS3 linking Manchester and Leeds – would create a true counterbalance to Greater London (9.8 million population) not just in our local economic and political terms but as a global powerhouse.  High speed train journeys between the points of the triangle would take no longer than an hour and with a strong focus on local and regional connectivity from the new High Speed Rail stations, there would be a real opportunity to reach out from the conurbations into the wider regions and link up even more people.

This is an enjoyable exercise in terms of big ideas but what could it actually mean?  Well, there would be a clear statement of cooperation and collaboration required – indeed a strong return to regionalism would be required in economic and political terms.  This coordination of regional economies would enable our regions to compete with the new city regions in emerging economies as well as setting aside competition between our cities and instead focus on the global economy and our place in it.  At the same time providing a real alternative to London has to be healthy – not just for the rest of Great Britain but also for Greater London and the South East which is overheating and pricing out swathes of local workers who are required for the conurbation to function.

The HS2 network (and indeed HS3) can provide the backbone for setting out (and delivering) a long term strategy for our transport network and how it connects into and drives development plans on a national, regional and local level.  We can be certain that we need to see a greater focus on a long term strategy that will truly bring great things for the Midlands and the North (as well as London and the South East) and it needs to be bold and outward-looking.

(NB population figures are rounded from the 2011 Census Built up areas, ONS)

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