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A spatial typology of the emerging post-industrial geography of England and Wales

Une typologie spatiale de la géographie nouvelle post-industrielle de l’Angleterre et du Pays de Galles
Peter Hall
p. 73-77


Si les disparités socio-économiques Nord-Sud restent d’actualité dans l’Angleterre et le Pays de Galles contemporains, l’entrée dans l’ère post-industrielle et l’incidence de la mondialisation ont complexifié la dichotomie que l’on pouvait dresser depuis les années 1930. Cet article propose une typologie dynamique en quatre classes permettant de rendre compte de cette nouvelle donne spatiale.

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Texte intégral

1There is an emerging postindustrial geography of England and Wales. To characterise it simply as a north-south divide is too crude, though that divide – first recognised in the great depression of the early 1930s – is an important element in it. Rather, at the risk of some simplification, it can be described in terms of a four-fold taxonomy:

2The Greater South East Mega-City Region: a vast complex comprising London and its commuter catchment area, plus fifty separate cities and towns, all medium-sized or small, and their catchment areas, stretching as far as 180 kilometres from central London, and in course of permanent enlargement.

3The Rural Periphery of Southern England: a vast penumbra to the first region, stretching out through extensive rural areas as far as the North Sea on one hand, the Atlantic Ocean on the other, and embracing much of Wales.

4The Archipelago Economy of Midland and Northern England, characterised by a relatively few major cities (“core cities”) that have suffered from major deindustrialisation but are now in course of slow transition to the service-based knowledge economy, surrounded by wide rings of ex-industrial towns that are having much greater difficulty in achieving this transition.

5The Rural North: the wide intervening areas of northern England, separating the core cities and their surrounding regions, and stretching far out across thinly populated scenic areas, much of which are protected National Parks, as far as the west and east coasts.

6Over the half-century since 1960, these four regions have experienced very different trajectories in terms of economic change, migration and consequent demographic evolution, and social change. But they are in course of constant dynamic evolution, and some individual sub-regions of the country can be said to be transiting from one to another. So their fortunes may change from decade to decade, sometimes at bewildering speed.

The Greater South East Mega-City Region

7This region embraces one-fifth of the land area of England and nearly two-fifths, 19,5 million, of its population. As analysed in the POLYNET study (Hall and Pain, 2006), it consists of London and its immediate commuter catchment, stretching approximately 40 km. from central London, together with fifty other cities and towns and their individual catchments, ranging in population size from 600 000 down to 80 000, and extending as far as 180 km from London. Planning controls, imposed since the 1947 Planning Act, have successfully maintained physical separation between these units, producing a pattern on the ground, and still more strikingly as seen from the air, of “towns against a background of open countryside”, the traditional British planning ideal first enunciated in the 1920a by Raymond Unwin. But, especially west of London, they are functionally interrelated through daily commuter exchanges and still more by exchanges of information in the course of daily business. Thus, in the conclusion of POLYNET, the region is polycentric not only in a physical but also in a functional sense.

8These functional relationships help to explain the evolution of this huge and extraordinarily successful region, which is comparable with similarly dynamic regions such as the Pearl River Delta and Yangtse River Delta of China. The dynamics of its growth have not so far been fully analysed, but it is reasonably clear that a central role was played by the expansion of London’s commuter field after 1950, which – distorted by the establishment of the London Green Belt – essentially leapfrogged over it and then, because planning controls contained urban growth, reconcentrated in distant towns. Then, as these commuter towns developed their own local service base and many attracted inward investment in offices which housed jobs decentralised from London, they too became important independent centres in their own right: a process observable in Bournemouth, Reading, Woking, Southend and Milton Keynes.  The designation of no less than eleven new towns between 1946 and 1968, together with major planned expansions of towns like Basingstoke and Swindon, further assisted the process. These were planned to be as far as possible self-contained, and had from the start a strong economic base both in manufacturing and service industries.

The Rural Periphery of Southern England

9The boundary between the South East Mega-City Region and its rural periphery is ambivalent and constantly shifting as the former extends ever farther outwards in the zone approximately 130-180 km. from London. Cities like Bristol, Coventry and Leicester, and smaller towns like Nuneaton, Lichfield, Melton Mowbray and Grantham, are not currently enveloped but could undergo this fate in the future. Impending improvements in rail services, including completion in December 2008 of the 200 km./hr. West Coast Main Line upgrade from London to the North West, could powerfully assist this process. The experience of towns in London’s commuter belt, as described above, may well be replicated in other locations more distant from London.

10Beyond the towns, rural locations in high-quality countryside and within easy reach of train stations, particularly those in lines accessible to London Heathrow airport, have proved attractive to Londoners seeking second homes and also to a wide range of small businesses such as advanced consulting and high-technology R&D; indeed these two processes may be synergistic. There is thus an observable thickening of the settlement pattern, coupled with upward pressure on the housing market which may have the effect of pricing out lower-income local buyers – a politically contentious point.

The Archipelago Economy of Midland and Northern England

11Beyond some critical limit from London, difficult to state and constantly liable to shift, the economic geography of England takes a different form best described in the term coined by Pierre Veltz: the archipelago economy (Veltz, 1999 ; Dorling and Thomas, 2005): the major “core cities” (Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle) form islands of economic growth, separated by wide seas of economic stagnation or decline. This spatial structure arises from a very unequal process of transition, over the period 1960-2000, from the 19th-century manufacturing economy to the 21st-century service-based knowledge economy. But in fact, the spatial pattern is more complex and subtle than just described.

12First, the core cities are themselves unequal cities (Centre for Cities, 2007). Their central business districts are the chief locations for the growth of the knowledge economy, together with their university campuses and – in a few cases – the perimeters of their airports. Sometimes city centre growth washes out into regenerated inner-ring locations, such as Salford Quays in Greater Manchester or Merry Hill in the West Midlands, producing what are effectively supplementary or alternative CBDs. But large areas of the middle and outer rings of these cities have failed to make the adaptation, leaving many of their inhabitants unemployed and deeply deprived. The process has particularly impacted on young white males growing up in isolated communities, such as peripheral public housing estates, who have failed mentally to adapt to the expectations and constraints of the new economy (McDowell, 2003). These cities therefore present a paradox, with new jobs attracting young in-migrants (particularly those who have graduated from the city universities) and commuters who may choose to live in the surrounding countryside, but with high rates of localised long-term unemployment and low expectations, which may extend from one generation to the next. This is why, despite their prosperity, these cities still record extraordinarily high levels of deprivation.

13This process is even more clearly seen in the rings around them, comprising former industrial towns which grew in the nineteenth century, but have demonstrably failed to make the critical transition out of the manufacturing economy. In the major official survey State of the English Cities (GB CLG, 2006) they show lower rates of Gross Value Added (GVA) per head, lower rates of GVA growth, higher unemployment and significantly higher proportions of lower-income households. And in the latest Index of Multiple Deprivation, published at the end of 2007 (GB GLG, 2007), many have shown further deterioration since the last (2004) count. But there are significant differences here. Some towns, perhaps because they are well located on main national transport corridors, have done significantly better than average: Warrington in the North West, located on the M6 motorway and West Coast Main Line, is an example. Others, particularly those located at greater distances from the core cities, seem to be deteriorating. In the so-called Central Lancashire City Region, embracing five separate medium-sized urban areas (Blackpool, Preston, Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley-Nelson-Colne), all showed sharp increases in multiple deprivation between 2004 and 2007.

14This observation has probable significance for policy. The so-called Northern Way strategy has placed great weight on the city region principle; one major inspiration has been the French communautés urbaines. A principal driving force has been the notion of spreading growth impulses from the cores of the core cities, more widely into their ex-industrial peripheral zones. But the evidence is beginning to suggest that there are spatial limits to this process and that they may soon be reached.

The Rural North

15One striking feature of the recent geography of England is the striking contrast between the state of these ex-industrial towns and the rural areas, including those immediately next to them. This is captured by two key indices. First, while the towns feature in the top thirty or forty of the most deprived local authorities in the CLG Index of Multiple Deprivation, the adjacent rural areas typically are found at the opposite end of the scale. Second, house prices are typically 50-100% higher – in extreme cases, as between Burnley and Ribble Valley, as much as three times higher (Hall 2006a). This contrast is visible in the prosperous state of the villages and small towns, which appear almost indistinguishable from their equivalents in southern England. It has arisen from a long process of out-migration of the middle class who populate the service economies of the cities and towns, but prefer a rural lifestyle, and it has been assisted by a system of motorways which, especially in North West England, facilitate long-distance commuting and have generated very wide commuter catchments around the cities for professional and managerial workers (Harding and Robson 2006).

16This prosperous rural north, which extends far out into remote upland areas such as the northern Pennines and the Lake District and North Yorkshire National Parks, is characterised by small market towns, typically with populations of 20,000-40,000 people: Macclesfield, Knutsford, Clitheroe, Ripon, Northallerton, Barnard Castle, Kendal, Keswick. It also includes a relatively few larger county towns with populations as high as 100 000-150 000: Chester, York, Lancaster, Darlington. (Preston, an interesting case, appears to belong to this group but shares some characteristics with the ex-industrial towns). These are typically located on major motorway and rail arteries which give them fast links to the core cities but also to London. They have strong economies based on public services (county administration, public health, higher education) and are attractive retail centres with wide catchments, having many of the characteristics of their southern English equivalents.

Reshaping the Geography?

17This increasing discrepancy of fortunes between different parts of the English and British economy – not merely north versus south, but also big city versus small town and urban-rural – is clearly deep and apparently deepening, as the State of the English Cities report demonstrates with a wealth of figures. Are there any ways in which public policy could address it? It can be argued that there are, but that the process is likely to be a slow one (Hall, 2006b).

18First, improved communications could help bring the north closer to London and its prosperous Mega-City Region – and, indeed, closer to similar regions (the Paris region, Central Belgium, the Dutch Randstad) in mainland Europe. Though the British railway system lacks the equivalent of the French TGV network – the 109-km-long, 300 km/hour line from the Channel Tunnel to London, completed in November 2007, is the sole exception – its 200 km/hr upgraded classical network brings all the major core cities, except Newcastle, within approximately a two-hour journey from London – there has been a national debate about the need for a second high-speed line, connecting with the first, from London to the north. Second, the economies of the core cities could be boosted by national policies such as the concentration of higher education and R&D facilities in and around these cities – the Science City programme of the major northern research universities – and national cultural facilities such as the relocation of part of the BBC to Greater Manchester, now taking place. And third, a combination of policies, based on improved internal transport links between the core cities and their immediate hinterlands, could speed the process whereby development in the former could spread into the latter. Government investment in the Greater Manchester Metrolink light rail network, finally agreed after much resistance, is a model for this process; the local authorities in the region plan further investment based on funds from a more ambitious version of London’s congestion charge, but full agreement is not forthcoming at the time of writing.

19In any case, transport improvements can only be a necessary precondition, not a sufficient one. Spreading prosperity must also depend on a strategy of diffusing the service industries which now everywhere drive the British economy, and also on developing high-quality family homes in attractive neighbourhoods in these towns, in order to intercept the commuters who currently bypass them: a process that is likely to take decades.

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Centre for Cities, 2007, Cities Outlook 2008, London, Centre for Cities.

DORLING D., THOMAS B., 2004, People and Places: A 2001 Census Atlas of the UK, Bristol, The Policy Press.

G.B. Department for Communities and Local Government, 2006, State of the English Cities: The Competitive Economic Performance of English Cities, By SIMMIE J. et al. London, DCLG.

G.B. Department of Communities and Local Government, 2007, Indices of Deprivation 2007.

HALL P., 2006a, The North’s Existential Dilemma. Town and Country Planning, 75, p. 229-230.

HALL P., 2006b, A New Geography of Britain: Analects for a Non-Autobiography. Town and Country Planning, 75, p. 304-308.

HARDING A., ROBSON B., 2006, A Framework for City-Regions, London, ODPM.

MCDOWELL L., 2003, Redundant Masculinities? Employment Change and White Working Class Youth,Oxford, Blackwell.

VELTZ P., 2000, Mondalisation Villes et Territoires: L’Économie d’Archipel, Paris, P.U.F (Third edition).

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Peter Hall, « A spatial typology of the emerging post-industrial geography of England and Wales », Géocarrefour, Vol. 83/2 | 2008, 73-77.

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Peter Hall, « A spatial typology of the emerging post-industrial geography of England and Wales », Géocarrefour [En ligne], Vol. 83/2 | 2008, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2011, consulté le 26 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/geocarrefour.5722

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Peter Hall

Professeur d’urbanisme et de régénération urbaine, University College, Londres et président de la Town and Country Planning

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