The case for making Hebden Bridge the UK's second city

Hebden Bridge street

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Birmingham and Manchester are usually mentioned when the subject of Britain's second city comes up. But is Hebden Bridge - population 4,200 - the rightful owner of the title?

Pretty much everyone in the world knows which is Britain's biggest city, but who can name the second?

It is a trick question, of course. Britain does not have a second city. Instead, it has a first city and a couple of thirds.

The 2011 census figures for Britain's broadly defined built-up areas, ranked by population, show that Greater London comes first with 9.8 million.

That makes it as big as the next six urban areas put together - Greater Manchester (2.5m), the West Midlands (2.4m), West Yorkshire (1.8m), Greater Glasgow and Clyde (1.2m), Liverpool (0.9m) and South Hampshire (0.9m).

Drawing on that list, Manchester and Birmingham offer the best candidates for second city status, but each is still only a quarter of the size of the capital and its sprawling urban area.

Now, if Britain was a typical country, you might expect it to have a second city of about five million, which is twice the size of Greater Manchester or the area around Birmingham.

London skyline London is the size of the six next biggest urban areas combined

I say this because it has been observed - very loosely it should be said - that the size distribution of cities within countries tends to follow a pattern in which the biggest city is about twice the size of the second city, three times the size of the third city, four times the size of the fourth and so on.

It is named Zipf's Law after the American linguist George Zipf, who noticed that the frequency distribution of words in many languages followed that pattern.

For the UK, the implication is stark.

Start Quote

It is as though Britain has a great world city but lacks a great national one”

End Quote

As the eminent economic geographer from the London School of Economics, Henry Overman, puts it: "These kind of arguments imply that the problem with Britain's urban system is not that London is too big. Instead, if anything, it's that our cities are too small."

Our second tier cities in particular.

Having cities that are too small is potentially an economic problem because we know that big cities act as hubs which boost whole regions.

We know that cities are where a disproportionate amount of business gets done. And we know that, typically, bigger cities are more productive than smaller ones.

One World Bank report summarised it thus: "The large and growing academic literature suggests that doubling city size increases productivity by 3% to 8%."

In other words, if you could make Manchester the size of London (by doubling it and doubling it again) you would expect it to be about 6% to 16% richer.

Manchester Manchester's population has grown rapidly over the past decade

Those who hate Britain's lopsided London-centricity might want to think about the idea of promoting the creation of a far bigger second city - one of several million people, which could serve as a counterweight to the mighty force that is the capital.

Hitherto, one might say that the lack of a proper second city has allowed London to divide and rule the rest of the nation. And the argument is even more powerful now that London has become such an obvious global centre.

It is as though Britain has a great world city but lacks a great national one.

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So, if you believe this analysis, which second city offers the most hope for taking on the might of London?

Manchester or Birmingham are usually put forward, and the data suggests there is a logic to those two being on the shortlist.

Most people who have thought carefully about it veer towards Manchester, which has had a faster growing population in the last decade and enjoys more of an international reputation based on its two football teams. (Not to mention the US exposure it has gained from the character Daphne in Frasier).

And, in a GfK opinion poll for the BBC, the city was a clear but not runaway winner. When asked which of six cities they would like to be the UK's capital if it were not London, 31% of people chose Manchester, against 25% for Birmingham. (The list also included Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and Bristol.)

Birmingham city centre Birmingham is often put forward as the UK's second city

However, there is an interesting alternative suggestion - Hebden Bridge. It is not a suggestion to take literally, but it does make an important point.

Hebden Bridge, nestling in the Pennines between Manchester and Leeds, is certainly one of the most interesting and flourishing towns in the UK. It was once declared the "fourth funkiest town in the world" (whatever that means) and is often said to be the lesbian capital of the UK.

Zipf's Law applied to world cities


  • Berlin 3,375,222
  • Hamburg 1,734,272


  • São Paulo 11,125,243
  • Rio de Janeiro 6,323,037


  • Toronto 5,583,064
  • Montréal 3,824,221

South Africa

  • Johannesburg 7,860,7812
  • Cape Town 3,430,99

Source: National statistics agencies

The suggestion that it is Britain's second city came from resident David Fletcher, who was active in the 80s saving the town's old mills and converting them to modern use.

His point is that Hebden Bridge is an inverted city with a greenbelt centre and suburbs called Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.

His point was that the real second city of the UK is a trans-Pennine strip that extends the relatively short distance across northern England, joining the built-up areas that lie second, fourth and sixth in the UK ranking.

Certainly, Hebden Bridge has attracted a lot of professional couples who are split commuters, one heading towards Manchester and one towards Leeds each morning. It is a place that allows both those cities to be treated as next door.

And maybe therein lies some kind of answer to the critical mass of London. It's not a second city called Hebden Bridge, but a super-city that tries to turn the great cities of northern England into one large travel-to-work area.

It would require a lot of physical infrastructure to improve links between the different centres.

And there would doubtless be rivalry and tension. The fact that Manchester is at its centre may not delight those who enjoy the football rivalries that are well known in that neighbourhood.

But there is no need to combine the teams, or to combine the names.

There would simply be a need to build on the success the bigger cities of Britain have been enjoying in recent years.

Watch Mind The Gap: London Vs The Rest on BBC Two at 21:00 on Monday, 10 March. Or catch it later on the BBC iPlayer.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 996.

    > But the government bailout meant that it was the rest of the country >that picked up the bill. And we are still paying for it today in the >budget cuts that are causing economic decline while London flourishes.

    Since London & the South East are the only region where public expenditure is less than tax collected the bill was effectively funded by the South-East.

  • rate this

    Comment number 995.

    "Since when has Manchester been more populous than Birmingham. According to the 2011 census Manchester was 5th or 6th in size behind B'ham, Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield!"

    If you have genuinely read the article and know the actual demographics of this country, you would know Manchester and its urban area numbered 2.5 million, ahead of Birmingham and the rest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 994.

    The truth is we live in a city state called 'London' which has a suburb called 'England' these days. Perhaps the best approach to redressing the imbalance would be to have a slight regional variation of corporate tax to encourage firms to locate in the less well off areas of Britain where there tends to be a great surplus of good housing stock in need of regeneration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 993.

    This seems an absurd argument taht the size of the UK's 'second city' will affect its economic output. It only takes a decision to be made re: transport links, workforce et cetera to work out which city SHOULD be second, then get the government to actually invest in the same. The growth predicted by Zipf would then be self-fulfilling - or is this too none London-centric for the powers that be?

  • rate this

    Comment number 992.

    Evan's view was very limited and uninformative. Geek groups and railways do not explain London, greed, criminality, and abuse of power do. Very disappointing and biased drivel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 991.

    986. richdix
    "York is the greatest second city in England and many feel it is the rightful capitol"

    And Winchester (before London)
    And Wilton in Wiltshire (the old capital of Wessex)
    And Colchester (old Capital of Roman Britain)

    Sadly, it is London.
    So, let Londoners keep their capital so long as they stay there and leave the rest of us alone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 990.

    Gibraltar should be UK's second city

  • rate this

    Comment number 989.

    London's success is not the result of UK govt spending on it; its private sector wealth comes from global expertise& top intl standards & is now self-generating and even accelerating. Govt funding is merely lubing of the locomotive which is pulling the rest of the UK. You did see both programmes, right?
    London has 880,000 private sector businesses & attracts talent from round the globe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 988.

    We're constantly being told that Britain is "full", and we shouldn't have any more immigrants, despite that fact that we have an ageing population who aren't financially productive after their 60s, and we desperately need younger people.
    This article rightly suggests we need more people not less.
    Just not in the South East, which is hugely overcrowded - and where most politicians are based.

  • rate this

    Comment number 987.

    No, London should be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 986.

    York is the greatest second city in England and many feel it is the rightful capitol.

  • rate this

    Comment number 985.

    This article provides the perfect argument for building HS2 in the north FIRST. Link Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham first, allow them to prosper from it, then move south to London. Of course, this will never happen because the hollow rhetoric about HS2 being designed to benefit the north at all is...utterly hollow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 984.

    The second city is secondary to the issue of investment. London attracts too much. Edinburgh is already the 'great national centre' with a culture that mocks places like grey Manchester. In England, Birmingham would the obvious choice to concentrate greater urban development. Rest of us can breath cleaner air and better qol.

  • rate this

    Comment number 983.

    Give England it's own parliament,site it midway between Manchester and Liverpool and build round it to unite the conurbations-and there is your second city [leave the Upper House of 4 nations in London![

  • rate this

    Comment number 982.

    973 - Yep, its a silly idea. But there is serious consideration of where to locate Parliament whilst the Houses or Parliament are repaired.

    Why not move them out of London whilst these repairs are ongoing?

    We could also put the MP's up in a hotel with secretariat facilities that could reduce fiddles, sorry expenses, as well!

  • rate this

    Comment number 981.

    So having just seen the program I would like to question the statistics regarding the size of city's when the Graphical display demonstrated how far ahead London was ahead of the rest. Since when has Manchester been more populous than Birmingham. According to the 2011 census Manchester was 5th or 6th in size behind B'ham, Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield!

  • rate this

    Comment number 980.

    No govt is going to fund Midlands/Northern conurbations out of dead old mfg towns until significant private investment is lured & secured.

    Be proactive and build better links between unis & automotive/aerospace/electronics/energy groups. Unis attracting massive private sector investment is often the key catalyst for new growth; as in Silicon Valley and now in Cambridge and Aberdeen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 979.

    MarkR1759 @960
    "funds are finite"

    The point I'm trying to make (beyond impossibility of any other means towards reasonable faith for all in justice ongoing) is need for agreed equal partnership, to allow decision-making in conscience, all of us deserving rational trust, problems such as London Weighting answered by the market, gearing to equal purses (no need for a car-plant etc in every town)

  • rate this

    Comment number 978.

    no cant do that no 2nd city London needs all the resources the country has its only fair to provide the best infrastructure finest cultural entertainment tax money can buy and fasted transport best jobs etc etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 977.

    I don't think the programmes explained the real reasons for the growing divide in Britain. It was the brilliant clever people in London who engineered the financial crisis in 2008. But the government bailout meant that it was the rest of the country that picked up the bill. And we are still paying for it today in the budget cuts that are causing economic decline while London flourishes.


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