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 676.

    The sooner Londonistan becomes an independent state the sooner some fairness can be brought to this country.
    Why does National government have to be based there anyway ?
    Somewhere more central e.g.Sheffield would be suitable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 675.

    "The large and growing academic literature suggests that doubling city size increases productivity by 3% to 8%"

    London has a SMALLER population now than it had in the 1930s, so why is it richer now than it was then if size matters? (phnarr)

  • rate this

    Comment number 674.

    "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. "

    SERIOUSLY? You need to check your maths skills.
    Erm what? Maths seems sound to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 673.

    Typical anti-Brummie bias from the BBC. You can't really expect anything else from these public-school and Oxbridge journos, who have probably never even visited Birmingham and all needed massive "financial packages" just to work in Salford rather than West London. Now they've been there a while they're touting it as the second city to push their house prices up. Sorry, but Brum is the 2nd city.

  • rate this

    Comment number 672.

    I like this idea.

    Lets do it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 671.

    667 well said, creating competitive city markets with larger buying power, linked with excellent transport links and communication infrastructure. Throw a tax reduction in corporation tax to the rest of the UK but not London. If you want growth and Synergy and agglomeration in London Pay for it and we will see how Fab London is for business

  • rate this

    Comment number 670.

    Ref: marsellus93 comment. As I was taught, population and economic output is a major factor. Not football clubs, social scene or people moving there. Manchester has not got anything to lay claim to even being England's third city. Large media centres also don't make a city. Nor do puff pieces about small towns. Economic output and population do. What is the politics behind this piece?

  • rate this

    Comment number 669.

    623. So you mean that Canterbury is the capital then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 668.

    @ 509. Armchair Warrior
    Wonder how many people in London, even know where Hebden Bridge is
    Probably about the same number as people in Hebden Bridge who have heard of London.

  • rate this

    Comment number 667.

    Why is everyone comparing Manchester directly with Birmingham, when the point of the article is to leverage synergies between Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds - with Sheffield also close. What's the alternative: Birmingham, Walsall, Dudley and Wolverhampton? Crikey. Now that's a scary thought...

  • rate this

    Comment number 666.

    London has become a top world city; that is why it has pulled ahead in the last 40 years.
    It doesn't apply to all sectors of course but MANY people at the cutting edge of innovation or at the peak of their careers; be it in finance, architecture, design, music, medical innovation, fashion, theatre, film, etc would be no more happy in Leeds than they would be in Dusseldorf or Minsk. Just a fact..

  • rate this

    Comment number 665.

    These daft articles really cheer me up on a dull afternoon. And even more so the comments you lot make! Don't be so serious! If you think this is a proper "news" article you need to get out more. Haven't you ever heard of "entertainment" And yes, the licence fee is for "entertainment" too. Lighten up for goodness sake!
    Thanks for a good chuckle, BBC. This would be a brilliant April 1st article.

  • rate this

    Comment number 664.

    Evan Davis, you've got to much time on your hands, and the BBC are talking about putting up the license fee, get back to some serious journalism for god sake.

  • rate this

    Comment number 663.

    This is yet another divisive HYS from the BBC, are you trying to break up the whole of the UK?

    This should be an article complaining about how London still gets way more funding than the rest of Britain (per capita) and how every major govt investment still has to have a major impact on London.

    Your next HYS should be, scrap HS2 and spend the money improving the infrastructure in the regions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 662.

    10 Minutes ago

    More people go through Kings Cross station every DAY than live in Newcastle - so of course London is going to get more funding.

    Newcastle £5 London £2,595 is that fairly justifiable?

  • rate this

    Comment number 661.

    I don't care where the 2nd city is located, as long as it kick-starts growth and investment in some area of this country other than London! How can a country feasible compete with only one geographical region? Would Germany be the power base of growth and development it is today if every decision made was to protect Berlin. Who cares where they locate it just diversify

  • rate this

    Comment number 660.

    "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. "

    SERIOUSLY? You need to check your maths skills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 659.

    @the green tin.

    You must have lived in all of the areas of Manchester to have such a broad knowledge of it.

    Somehow, I think not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 658.

    Mr Evan Davis

    Starting from this monring, your silly article has got lots of followers to comment on it, congrats!

    BTW, are you still running that TV program...mmmm, what is it called? Ah Dragons Den?

  • Comment number 657.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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