Human beings come in two varieties. There are those who like peace and quiet and there are those who like hustle and bustle. I’m firmly in the second camp.
I enjoy living on a busy London crossroads; I hate going into restaurants unless they’re almost full; on holiday I run a mile if someone recommends an isolated tourist-free beach. And if I have a window seat on a night flight I find the sight of illuminated human settlements below warm and reassuring.
As most grown-ups in Britain grumble about crowds and appear to yearn for nothing more than a nice pile in the country, I have always thought my preference for being near other people was a bit odd. But I now realise that mine is not a minority taste at all. The growth of our capital and other big cities is testament to the fact that my craving is shared by many others. What I observe is that lots of us love big cities because we have an innate longing to be near millions of other people. The same desire affects businesses, too. Far from wanting to get away from it all, they want, above all else, a place in the most densely populated parts of the country, where the rents are higher, the parking harder, and the housing small, but where you are at least in close proximity to everybody else.
I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of this gravitational pull that big cities have, as it explains why London occupies the place it does in this country. Ask bosses why they want their business to be in London and the answers you get are a mix of economics and psychology.
“That’s where everybody else is,” they say. Push them a bit harder and they’ll talk of the networking that you enjoy in a big city; the serendipitous meetings, the gossip, the ability to see what everyone else is getting up to. The “Costa culture” is what one executive called it; you bump into people at a coffee shop and things happen.
Of course, it’s always been the case that commercial life has revolved around hubs. From the earliest hunter-gatherers, humans made giant strides when they created settled communities that became villages, towns and cities. What is perhaps most striking, though, is how far big cities appear to be the future rather than the past. Our economy – more than most others – has evolved towards industries and activities that are white-collar or white-lab-coat; we’ve moved towards innovation and intellectual property. It is precisely these new industries that seem to thrive in the hubbub of a big centre.
Indeed, it’s because London is such a great place for new industries to cluster that it is on the up, and why, elsewhere in Britain, other big urban centres are growing, too. The academic evidence suggests that if you double the size of a city, its workers become more productive. A city of two million is likely to be three to eight per cent more productive than two cities of one million. In the US, one study found that 96 per cent of innovations come out of metropolitan areas, hugely disproportionate to the population. It’s not particularly surprising. Cities are where creative stuff gets done – keeping them small holds the economy back.
Unfortunately, in the UK – away from London at least – we’ve had rather limited ambitions for our big cities. Henry Overman is a professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics. He argues that the UK is an unusual country, not so much in the large size of its capital, but in the small size of its second-tier cities.
The suggestion is that we encourage them to grow as hubs to fuel our regional economies. That’s the opposite of what we’ve often done in the past. You look at the postwar history of Birmingham and see a city strangled by a ring road that kept the centre too small and which was thwarted by planning restrictions.
We passed laws like the 1965 Control of Office Employment Act, designed to choke off growth in the hope it might go to other parts of the country that needed it more. Needless to say, it wasn’t very successful. Moreover, keen to be fair to all, we’ve also spent millions on well-meaning efforts to pump life into our small towns, rather than investing them in our big cities.
I visited one example, a wonderful arts and business centre in West Bromwich called The Public. An architectural showpiece, it cost millions and was full of interesting treats. But it closed late last year as the council couldn’t afford the upkeep. I suspect it would have had more chance of survival in central Birmingham, just down the road.
I also visited Wigan, where several million has been spent on beautiful offices in a revamped mill near the famous pier. It was meant to become a “cultural quarter”, but hasn’t taken off. The offices are almost all empty. The problem is that nearby big cities Liverpool and Manchester have a cultural pull that Wigan lacks.
Of course we can’t abandon our smaller communities, but we need to be realistic about what fits there. I had an enjoyable argument about it with the poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan, a resident of Barnsley. He has less affection for megacities than me and could tell that if the world went my way, the Barnsleys would end up being commuter towns; the spokes to other big hubs. “If you lived somewhere and its only purpose was to feed another place,” he said, “then the place you lived in wouldn’t mean anything... It would just be like going back home to a Holiday Inn.”
Well, I hope it’s possible for us to have thriving towns, but not at the expense of the large metropolitan areas. Our big cities are starting to buzz again, and long may that trend continue.
Mind the Gap: London vs the Rest is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2.