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Small cities key to Northern Powerhouse success, says IPPR North

Small and medium sized towns and cities (SMCs) are essential to boosting growth in the Northern Powerhouse, according to a report from IPPR North.

The research finds that the North’s smaller cities represent one third of the Northern economy and play a key role supporting the growth of their bigger neighbours.

IPPR North says the report “City systems: the role of smaller towns and cities in growing the Northern Powerhouse” highlights the vital role such places play in the wider economy – in sectors like advanced manufacturing, energy and logistics, key strands of the government’s Northern Powerhouse strategy. 

It calls for greater recognition of the complementary roles played by SMCs as part of broader ‘city systems’ to avoid the housing and congestion problems faced by London. This would be more like the kind of successful regions seen in Germany, the Netherlands and other parts of Europe, it says.

Growth rates in the 20 SMCs with populations over 75,000 match levels seen in major cities. This includes Wigan, Doncaster, Burnley and Wakefield – with productivity in Wigan higher than in neighbouring Manchester.

The analysis finds that many small and medium-sized cities do face significant challenges from not being better connected to bigger cities. But they can overcome these problems with a clear focus on their own economic strengths; tackling local skills problems; and collaborating with big-city neighbours.

The report recommends: 


  • Treating SMCs in a similar way to the way government treats small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with bespoke support to foster local strengths.
  • Taking a more “European” attitude to how we plan our economy, instead of following US city-thinking which is more suited to countries with large distances between cities – European cities tend to be much more interconnected than American cities.
  • Reviewing the London-centric system of transport funding which favours major cities, to a system which takes more understanding of the emerging evidence on the role of smaller cities in the wider “urban ecosystem”.
  • Small and medium-sized cities need to do more to identify and articulate their unique roles as part of wider “city systems”.


IPPR North is releasing the report ahead of its publication of a Great North Plan blueprint. The blueprint will highlight the benefits of joined-up economic planning in the North, and is being launched at KPMG’s Leeds office on Friday 17th June.

Ed Cox, director of IPPR North, said, “The latest academic research is asking some big questions about the big city story and it is about time policy-makers recognised this.

“In the same way small and medium businesses are now seen as vital to the British economy and the success of our big companies, we need to refocus policy on the North’s small and medium towns and cities, and not just the big cities – vital as they are.

“The evidence shows this is not ‘jam-spreading’ resources thinly but economically the right thing to do: Manchester needs a prosperous Wigan to succeed, and vice-versa.”

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