Reinvention Against Replication Part 1
The past century has been one of change. Even our industrial forefathers, who watched with awe at the birth of the cotton mill and the printing press in the 18th century, and marvelled at the steam engines of the 19th century, wouldn’t have dreamed of the technical advances we’ve made since.
Advances which have so infused and reshaped the landscape of the UK economy that their effects can be likened to that of a nuclear holocaust - resulting in an unshakeable sense of loss and bewilderment for those caught unaware.
The reality we face is this: cities which thrived in the early 20th century upon a specific economic or industrial prowess, be it construction, manufacturing or otherwise, have become lost, and now struggle to reclaim their feet amidst a renewed market emphasis; the knowledge-economy.
And so we find ourselves in the era of the great North-South divide. Despite numerous government-backed projects, including the so-called Brown Ban of the 1960s, which prohibited new office blocks being built in London, few measures have been effective at stemming the tide of this caustic split. London has prospered at a monuments rate, whether measured nationally or internationally. It is Europe’s second largest financial capital, and is home to the country’s thriving industries, specifically the tech/IT industry. But this regional powerhouse is a source of angst for the rest of the country, urging the need to understand how to replicate its prosperity across the lost North.
It is one of the most commonly cited issues affecting the UK today, and one which there seems to be no redeemable, clear-cut answer. As an example, Blackpool has struggled immensely since the 1970s due to its faltering tourist industry, which was once the lifeblood of the city’s economy. Over the past 40 years it has struggled to reclaim economic stability, with added pressure from the arrival of package-holiday companies and a reduced demand for domestic seaside holidays. Its once bustling hotels lie dormant, and in 2012-2013 Blackpool had the highest welfare bill per capita of any UK city.
In contrast, the city of Brighton, which faced a similar fate, has found new ways to prosper. With a depleted construction economy and a marked drop in tourism, Brighton expanded its KIBS jobs, as well as working to reinvigorate its faltering tourist sector. It sought multiple new pathways to job creation, supporting a range of industries and services. As a result, the total number of jobs within the city has doubled in the past 15 years.
Of course, numerous factors govern the decisions behind Brighton and Blackpool’s respective economic evolution, but their comparison illustrates how the South has been more successful at replacing its old job markets. Routine jobs, such as those common in construction and factory lines, are at risk within a global market, where the opportunities to outsource are plentiful and foreign competition is rife. Locations such as London, meanwhile, have thrived due to a circulation of high-skilled, knowledge-based jobs.
The issue for many cities has been one of reinvention. The inability to reinvent and redefine their economies against the backdrop of the new, globalised 21st century economy, where knowledge-base job sectors have been the driving force behind the UK’s recovery and growth. Liverpool, a city which once vied to be the second capital of the British empire, struggled with the loss of its shipbuilding industry, but has since found new growth using a strategy similar to the South’s, resulting in a marked increase in foreign investment. Working alongside local universities, the city has promoted knowledge-economy services such as life sciences and financial services. The above example, however, doesn’t render the geographic distinctions insignificant. On the contrary, it is not where these cities exist today, but where they have existed that hinders them - i.e. their shared histories.
The current government’s often cited Northern Powerhouse scheme, which is intended to revitalise the likes of Manchester and Birmingham, helping them to syphon off London’s regional-exclusive wealth and success, presents an interesting opportunity to see whether the hub of knowledge-based services and jobs can be truly replicated elsewhere.
London’s so-called Silicon Roundabout or TechCity was produced organically, invented as it were, by the creative professionals that inhabited it. Even the aforementioned distinctions were only bestowed later, largely as a governmental effort to give it further international credence. And this leaves us with an important question to answer. If some cities are able to organically reinvent themselves, and find firm economic ground in knowledge-based services, can these regionalised hubs ever be replicated elsewhere, and if so, how successfully?
In the future, London’s current prestige could prove to be nothing more than a great example of international marketing - of branding a city in such a way that its global acclaim is actually the cause of its success, rather than the effect. Time will tell whether this strategy of government-backed branding can help the North reinvent itself.