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 576.

    @543.Jonny, Its got a reasonably good auto industry with Landrover and Jaguar based there, along with support industries for palstics etc, its the 3rd largest in interms of Financial services and Law, 3rd in England after Manchester and London.

    It also has a good Tech and Engineering basis with Aston Uni and Warks for the Tech grads.

  • rate this

    Comment number 575.

    Big isn't always better. Who says that London is a success? Maybe financially if that is your motivation but I would rather live in a shed in the middle of nowhere than an expensive flat in London.The bigger the place the higher the crime. If you ask somebody to describe somewhere pretty (apart from Sydney) it will always be with country scenes not overcrowded, graffiti and rubbish strewn cities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 574.

    That's final then - scrap HS2 & concentrate on infrastructure between the northern cities. How about a motorway that goes all the way to Scotland - or are we holding off, waiting for them to leave? I don't condone the idea of increasing the populations of these areas but if we can better connect them then that would be hugely productive - M62 from Liverpool to Leeds is in desperate need of upgrade

  • rate this

    Comment number 573.

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

    It's not it's a town - it has a parish church. Lovely place though - I live just two miles down the road and it is a pretty unique sort of place with many independent shops. The only high street store there is Boots - there are two of those!

  • rate this

    Comment number 572.

    I'm just happy I live in the countryside.

  • rate this

    Comment number 571.

    One wonders how much green will turn to concrete in green and pleasant land. (Still if the population continues to grow due to a birth rate and immigration who am I to deny a place to live).

  • rate this

    Comment number 570.

    Go back to sleep Evan. Take your tablets and shush.

  • rate this

    Comment number 569.

    In order based and on importance to both Britain and its standing in the world.

    1. Greater London
    2. Inner London

    No other cities are worth considering and most only generate debt rather than wealth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 568.

    I agree with Paul - HS2 money would be better spent on creating better road and rail links between the northern cities. I know HS2 will be coming right by my flat and over my beloved lakes and therefore I am biased, but I do believe it will only add to London being the centre of the universe and not distribute the wealth further north as the government claim.

  • rate this

    Comment number 567.

    interested to see zipf's law being used to support the desire to increase the size of UK cities ...

    australia's two largest cities, sydney and melbourne, are very similar in population (~4m each), and clearly do not adhere to this law.

  • rate this

    Comment number 566.

    This is a great idea. One shouldn't underestimate cultural assets (fashion, music, attitude) when it comes to city-making, and Manchester is easily next to London. Yes it has football, but the real nucleus is its musical legacy: Joy Division, Smiths, Stone Roses, Oasis, Chemical Bros etc. Combine this with Liverpool's and Leeds' (inc. a potent Beatles mythology), and Birmingham is far behind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 565.

    Anything that sorts out travel costs. Travel outside of my own county shouldn't be a luxury if I don't have a car.

  • rate this

    Comment number 564.

    the masked crusader
    "move parliament to Manchester"

    It cost over £2Billion just to move a section of the BBC to Salford, have you noticed how Salford is now a wealthy & crime-free area that's a pleasure to live & work in? No, and neither has anyone else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 563.

    According to Zipf, the only city in my county ranks 500th so for that, and many other reasons I can't print, I'll happily concede the contest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 562.

    @556 I agree move the capital to Manchester it's more central in the United Kingdom as a whole and leave London as the financial capital of who the hell cares.

  • rate this

    Comment number 561.

    London isn't part of Britain any more - it's a separate state in its own right - it's Britain's money pit, a black hole sucking the life and prosperity out of Britain. If London was a boil on your bum (and it is) - you'd lance it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 560.

    London may have to move to Birmingham if sea levels continue to increase.

  • rate this

    Comment number 559.

    Birmingham is the second city, both in population size and economic measures. No need to debate. Far more pleasant a city than Manchester in so many ways, including their ability to be far more self depreciating than Manchester, which has a habit of promoting itself so hard you start to realise that the only people who believe Manchester's hype are Mancunians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 558.

    Do we really need more big, cramped, expensive cities just to get a few extra percentage points of efficiency?

    Especially when everything is moving "into the cloud" so to speak.

  • rate this

    Comment number 557.

    498 amd767 - No, it isn't.

    Bless !


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