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

Hebden Bridge street

Related Stories

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.

Find out more

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.


More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 536.

    Why are we discussing this? What's the point of a 'second city'? Who cares if it's Manchester or Birmingham or whatever, will it actually change anything? Many of the comments here suggest that people just want to gripe at 'London', even though it's just a collection of people and institutions. There is no agenda to divide and conquer the rest of the country - the suggestion is ridiculous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 535.

    404.Jason Mills
    "It seemed a long way to the point, and then it turned out there wasn't one."

    Beautifully put, sir! Evan Davis well reduced, and succinctly so!

  • rate this

    Comment number 534.

    While Boris the Buffoon dashes around doing his best to generate investment & jobs for his constituents and his city, just what are the Chief Execs of Manchester, Birmingham & Liverpool doing for their £200k+pa salaries?

  • rate this

    Comment number 533.

    The second city for the UK should be one of the other capitals - Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast. For England's second city I think we should have a balance to the South so it should be in the North - Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield or Manchester. This woud take investment away from London though so it will never happen. I wonder when Yorkshire will get a referendum on independence?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 532.

    Why do we even feel the need to have cities anyway?

  • rate this

    Comment number 531.

    Although it has terrible underinvestment Sheffield would make an excellent second city. It absolutely needs investment, particularly in better transport infrastructure (including a city centre station for HS2!) but it is a friendly city, interesting history, lots of parks and green space and it makes an excellent hub being so close to Manchester, Leeds, Hull, Nottingham and other cities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 530.

    @521.Jonny, its a major transport hub with trains converging at New street from the NE, SE, SW and NW, it also has an Airport and motorway network, though the M6 can be a nightmare.

    In terms of population, I wonder what the critera is for Brum and Manchester, should it include Wolverhampton for brum or Bolton/Stockport etc for manchester?

  • rate this

    Comment number 529.

    Double the size of cities like Leeds or Manchester to improve productivity by 3%.

    Lets not!

  • rate this

    Comment number 528.

    @ 510.justice96ynwa and @ 489.Padmundo198
    Comparing british cities to olympic 100m runners is a bit like making ridiculous metaphors that have no real relation to the argument that you are trying to make.

  • rate this

    Comment number 527.

    A passing bit of light news. All this po-face stuff about bigger and richer, and the outlook for Britain being 'stark' shouldn't be taken too seriously. Cities come as they come in different cultures (France has a very different city size-pattern from us, as do most of our European neighbours) Interesting article, but we've more significant worries than Mr Zipf or the wilder shores of the LSE

  • rate this

    Comment number 526.

    London isn't a city it's a sprawling dirty metropolis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.

    B.ham was remodelled after the war on the 1950/60's model that the car would be king. Now lots of dated empty offices. Manch was only remodelled after the IRA did a bit of town planning in 1996 and the first tram scheme installed. Now the largest city resi population in UK (other than London of course). Gotta be Manchester

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.


    Good point. As far as the world is concerned London IS Britain, actiually some would say London is a world city and the destination of choice for many. It's up to the regions to market themselves better and make the case of why Manchester, Birmingham etc are better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 523.

    I have nothing against Manchester, in fact it's a cracking City….But Manchester as a city without the surrounding areas that makeup Greater Manchester (only formed in 1972) is not bigger than Birmingham. So Brum is Britain's 2nd City. Glasgow, Bristol and a few others are bigger than Manchester too, having said that why is it a competition anyway? Is it divide and conquer by the EVIL Cockneys

  • rate this

    Comment number 522.

    Wasn't Colchester the Capital in Roman times, better place then most of the cities mentioned in the article and far more deserving.

  • rate this

    Comment number 521.

    Why would Birmingham be the second City? I've not heard an argument for it apart from scale? I'd like someone to convince me otherwise, but the momentum is all with Manchester.

  • rate this

    Comment number 520.

    Comparing cities in the UK with those in larger countries is silly because many of our cities have no room to expand any further.There are people living 30 miles away from other big cities who will say there's very few green spaces in between.These are just lines on maps and some outlying towns and villages are not in the countryside but simply have a few more green spaces.

  • rate this

    Comment number 519.

    Q: ... is Hebden Bridge - population 4,200 - the rightful owner of the title? A: No.

  • rate this

    Comment number 518.

    I am assuming someone at the BBC asked some of the Salford based staff where they live and decided to commission an article about it. Next week they could do an article on Didsbury fashionistas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 517.

    What nonsense. Hebden Bridge isn't a City, it's a Village!


Page 24 of 50


More Business stories



From BBC Capital


  • Temperature remoteThe Travel Show Watch

    The remote to control the temperature of your shoes plus other travel gadgets reviewed

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.