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 736.

    a wighted population centre for England excluding London would be in Buxton - probably

  • rate this

    Comment number 735.

    I don't know if it has escaped people's attention but London is a godforsaken hell-hole that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy

    Worse than London are Londoners who like any parasite destroy everything in their path including my own (once) idyllic market town of Stamford

    Why we'd want a mini-London anywhere else is beyond me. I'd rather look at plans to dismantle London and quarantine the locals

  • rate this

    Comment number 734.

    It should be near the geographic centre of the country, so that narrows it down to Manchester or Birmingham, depending on the outcome of the Scottish referendum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 733.

    It isn't that we need a larger 'second city'; just some degree of parity for all regions. At the moment, things are far too slanted in London's favour, to the detriment of the rest of us. It's almost as if the rest of us don't count.

  • rate this

    Comment number 732.

    @719. Dr_Ads
    And who is going to fund Boris Island / Heathrow expansion then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 731.

    The fact that London outperforms the rest of the country is not an issue.

    The fact that they get such a disproportionate amount of government money to do so is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 730.

    May be UK has only one large city because of it's physical size. All the other countries mentioned are all much larger than the UK. Some counties' conurbations are farther apart than those in the UK . Some countries also have historical reasons for their large concentractions e.g. Canada - English or French language divide, South Africa - the divide between Dutch and British settlers

  • rate this

    Comment number 729.

    At the end of the last labour government there was a proposal for the northern corridor, that would be a quick transport infrastructure between Hull and Liverpool. Unfortunately it came too late in Labours reign to do any good. This needs to be re-energised as this would make Hull, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool areas to compete with London. Then you would see who is the second city

  • rate this

    Comment number 728.

    Isn't this the lesbian centre? It is indeed a good idea to have a Northern base but this sort of silly suggestion makes nonsense of serious attempts to redress the balance .It may become a de facto need to move north as the southern parts of the UK are subject to flooding and increasingly uninhabitable. Tthere is a need for a coherent plan, not wild stabs in the dark .

  • rate this

    Comment number 727.

    Every ten years roughly 100,000 people have left Liverpool in search of work or education, with few returning.

    Most Towns in the North experience similar demographic pressure.

    It's not seen as a problem.

    Well it is. It wastes housing stock, destroys family life, and causes economic damage to the UK.

    Politicians should care, they clearly don't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 726.

    York has the distinction of having been the capital of the North. No brainer for being the second city......

  • rate this

    Comment number 725.

    The modern trend is for political capitals to be located away from the largest cities - Canberra, Ottawa, Washington, Abuja etc. The UK should move its political capital from London to York (the one-time home of the Council of the North), and then the combined Northopolis (Leeds/Manchester/Liverpool/Sheffield) would be close by the centre of decision-making and would attract inward investment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 724.

    Create a Northern hub at Manchester Airport and watch the investment, expansion and returns - 2nd city status maybe?
    It would also help alleviate the congestion at Heathrow and go a long way in helping weary travellers constantly being forced through south east airports. Aye, what a grand idea!

  • rate this

    Comment number 723.

    If the North had better transport links east to west west to east it would better rather than creating a mega-conurbation that no one in the North would they would rather keep the individual character of their cities. reopen Woodhead tunnel rail line as a starter. Central gov should spend pend some infrastructure money in the provinces like it does in London.

  • rate this

    Comment number 722.

    The problem with the UK economy is the disproportionate amount of wealth and spending centred on London. This has gone on for years and the problem gets bigger and bigger because of the vicious circle of London taking care of itself first. We can't make London smaller but we should stop funding London to the detriment of everyone else. London is the cuckoo in the UK nest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 721.

    There is no definitive criteria for a second city: it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands yet The Hague is the seat of Government. The USA has different centres: NYC for media, DC for Government, LA for entertainment. So why not spread things around. We could be far more creative than this old argument.

  • rate this

    Comment number 720.

    Britain has a number of charming regional cities such as Bath, York, Winchester. What these centres lack is any economic activity other than tourism & local services. An exception is Cambridge which has leveraged its connections with the university.

  • rate this

    Comment number 719.

    @704 40 Watt
    "The only way to secure government funding and agreement is to help feed the already damaging inequalities"

    What does government funding have to do with it? The airports are private enterprises and it's private enterprise that creates jobs. But if northern businesses are not willing to invest in their own region then why should anyone else?

  • rate this

    Comment number 718.

    @533, The second city certainly shouldn't be either Belfast, Cardiff or Edinburgh...

    Those cities are already well over popularised by being the capital cities of their respective countries. England has a population of 35+ million outside the South East which is ignored, isn't this the point of the article?

    Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool (amongst others) is far more deserving.

  • rate this

    Comment number 717.

    For regions to be competitive and grow, they must be diverse. Without diversity, they cannot support modern families where the two adults work, often in different occupations. Couples head to London where both can find something. Scrap HS2 and use the money to better connect "the North" from Hull to Liverpool because making each city in between as 'economically' diverse as London is impossible.


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