Suburban Capitals

Suburban Capitals

I’m taking part in a panel this morning about the prospect of ‘suburban capitals’, satellite city centres around the major hubs that are starting to attract more companies for their HQs*. The panel is discussing what’s driving this flight and what the future holds.

These suburban capitals seem to spring up where you get the confluence of multiple factors that both drive and enable the relocation of companies away from the centre. The centre – particularly in London – is, if not prohibitively expensive, then at least prone to consuming rather more of your revenue than you might like.

That revenue is particularly critical now in a time of uncertainty, and when there is a highly competitive market for skills – one not eased by our looming exit from the EU. Moving offices out to the suburbs both frees up cash and creates a potentially more attractive lifestyle for recruits, with shorter commutes and ready access to more affordable properties – for certain values of ‘affordable’.

Transport is another critical component. Decent links from London to the home counties make it more feasible for companies to locate outside of the centre of London, especially if their suburban location has ready access to rail, motorways and airports. Of course, the links to some places are better than others…

Elsewhere in the country these suburban capitals tend to spring up where you have this same confluence: expensive centres, high cost staff, demand for quality of life, and transport links that make the move possible. Plus, of course, the developments themselves that can attract discerning corporations.

What interests me about this migration is what it suggests is possible: given the right incentives, and the right conditions, corporations can leave the over-heated centres and be persuaded to migrate. Not just to the peripheries of London but perhaps to other places as well.

It’s been said, sometimes in jest, and sometimes not, that Paris is a suburb of London. Certainly some people commute between the two and though it’s costly, it might not be much more expensive than commuting from the home counties, with some significant advantages. If this is true then London has many other suburbs: from my suburb of Manchester I’m just two and a half hours from the centre.

If the conditions prevail and the developments keep on coming, could we rebalance investment across the country by convincing people to base big businesses elsewhere and treat London as somewhere to visit rather than live?

Perhaps. But attractive as that sounds, we may want to be a little careful. The productivity of a city climbs with its population, as highlighted in this recent report from the Leeds Open Data Institute. Distribute companies too widely across the country and we might lose some of these effects of scale. Unless, of course, we can shrink the distance between these urban centres so effectively that they begin to operate like a single city. Once again, transport is crucial.

All of which leads back to campaigns to improve public transport, in the South East and in the North, and in the Midlands. Living in Manchester I’m biased and would argue that the potential of a strong Leeds/Manchester/Liverpool axis should take priority. But in general, we need better infrastructure. Speed the connections between cities and suburban capitals and we might be able to distribute the wealth a little more evenly, and tackle the UK’s productivity issues. But it will require a very different approach to government.

 

*The first thing I should note is that this is another ‘manel’, an all-male panel, so common in the property industry. I did raise this with the organisers when I realised this was the case, a couple of days before. The usual story came back in response: we originally had planned a woman moderator and panellist but for whatever reason, they couldn’t do it. The answer, of course, is to ask why they couldn’t have been replaced by other women.

I am normally a bit more aware of (and averse to) appearing on manels but this time for whatever reason, I looked into it too late. By the time I realised, there was nothing constructive to be done about it. I did consider pulling out myself but I wasn’t sure what this would achieve by that point. I’m open to constructive criticism: I don’t know that it was the right move.

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Tom Cheesewright