London Vs. Everywhere

Published as a opinion piece on The Chamberlain Files.

In his third voyage, Gulliver encounters the floating island of ‘Laputa’. The island hovers above the lower island of ‘Balnibarbi’, where it uses its considerable technological advances to dominate the people below. It’s a striking image of a nation divided, where rulers above are literally detached from the society they govern below.

Bearing this in mind, I was immediately struck by familiarity of the visuals in the opening titles of the much-trailed Evan Davis documentary Mind the Gap: London Vs The Rest. The graphic shows London jutting out, high above the rest of the UK, practically bursting into the stratosphere. The Davis documentary set out to give an explanation of how London has achieved proverbial disassociation with the rest of the UK, or rather, how London has become the Laputa to the UK’s Balnibarbi.

The latest episode, broadcast on Monday night on BBC2, focused on the other cities in the UK, flatteringly titled ‘The Rest’. As such, I was braced for the usual depiction of Birmingham, as my colleague Paul Dale listed in response to a similar analysis of Birmingham by Fraser Nelson at the Spectator:

There’s something about the post-war [planning] ripping out the Victorian heart of the city centre (check), the essential jibe about cars and horrid concrete flyovers (check), there’s the Prince Charles Central Library is an incinerator for books quote (check) … and finally the evergreen portrayal of Manchester as a huge success story and Birmingham as a municipal disaster (check).

Evan didn’t fail to deliver. He hit all the key sore spots about Birmingham’s post war slump, going as far to describe the city as the case of ‘what not to do.’  The Black Country didn’t fair much better. The Public was characterised as a folly, an attempt to copy Bilbao, and ultimately a failed endeavour.

But, unexpectedly, I didn’t find my hackles rising – Davis delivered these points in a considered and balanced manner. Davis’ argument didn’t use these reasons as a justification for maintaining the system as Fraser et al have done, but as the reasons we should allow cities like Manchester and Birmingham to grow.  The programme made the case for devolving more funding and powers to UK cities, arguing that cities need the power to generate more of their own income in order to create sustainable growth for the UK as a whole.

The argument focussed primarily around two economic principles: economies of agglomeration and Zipf’s Law. Agglomeration is the notion that fields of business cluster together in order to reduce costs of production by greater specialisation and division of labour, and thus we create super cities. Building on this idea, Davis then referenced Zipf’s lawa simple principle that suggests our cities are in fact too small in relation to London. The combination of these two theories led to the conclusion we’re in need of a second city. Unfortunately, according to Davis, it’s not Birmingham – the counter-weight will be Manchester.

However, I didn’t mind seeing that conclusion from Evan: in a straight contest with Manchester, that’s a fight the Midlands can win, even if it’s losing right now according to the polls. If the West Midlands conurbation can resolve its differences and get our act together, the riches will be ours to share.  Birmingham along with Wolverhampton, Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Solihull need to recognise ‘united we stand, divided we fall’. If we don’t, the spoils will go to Manchester and the North West.

But I do have one main criticism about the Mind the Gap programmes (besides the continual swooping shots of the London skyline reminiscent of The Apprentice ) as an afterthought. There is often an assumption that London’s current position was pre-determined from intangible star quality, that it has naturally achieved the position above the rest of the nation and world by some mystic, special quality. It is an assumption that one Londoner struck upon in the documentary, going as far to state London’s ascendency started in the Roman times as the chief port for exporting.

Putting aside history (with the collapse of Roman rule in the early 5th century, London ceased to be a capital and the walled city of Londinium was effectively abandoned, and required resettlement)  this is typical of the London narrative that has built up over the last few years. The dogma of this ‘London Exceptionalism’ has created a myth that justifies the city is a new Avalon that naturally sits atop the hill.

It doesn’t. London is on top due to a deliberate set of policies that located all the key institutions and powers in one place, it hasn’t simply drifted to the top by accident. Davis neglected challenging the assumption that national institutions have to be based in London that give it a natural boost, and how it may benefit other cities to relocate these.

But we can learn from this ‘Laputian’ tactic: it’s time for Greater Birmingham to construct its own sense of exceptionalism and grasp the second city title that is rightfully ours.

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