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April 2019

Reframing Inter-City Transport and Agglomeration Potentials

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Featured image © Sashkin / Adobe Stock

An earlier version of this blog is available on the author’s personal blog.

£300,000 for trans-Pennine road links

Highways England has recently announced a £300,000 study that is to look at the improvements to the road links ostensibly linking Preston and Leeds Travel-to-Work Areas (TTWA). The study as the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has put it[1]

is part of our ongoing work to ensure the routes between Lancashire and Yorkshire are fit for the future – helping link communities better and boosting the economy to supercharge the Northern Powerhouse.

The announcement does make references to the importance of the East Lancashire-Yorkshire corridor to the freight traffic of the industries there. That being said, as with the original plans for the Northern Powerhouse, the choice of cities and regions to be connected, be it via road or rail, can appear arbitrary and the growth- and agglomeration-related language raises a few questions.[2] Put simply, we tend to believe bigger cities to be more efficient with their resources and more productive economically.[3] This boils down to the ability of cities to facilitate and maximize interactions between people ‘boosting the economy’ such that the per capita output of the city increases with population. This is mainly why the efforts aimed at addressing the economic performance gap between the North and the Southeast have focused on connecting major urban centers in the north, at least as far as transport strategy is concerned. These inter-city transport links are seen as a way of constructing a virtual city in the North that has the size of London and hence improved productivity and efficiency.

Agglomeration-based infrastructure intervention

When it comes to the perceived powers of urban agglomeration, however. there is fine print involved. From a theoretical perspective, for cities belonging to a given urban system – say that of the UK – we would expect to see a balance between the cities’ economic output and what they pay in terms of the costs of moving people about in the city to enable those economic returns – a size-cost balance if you will.[4] As a function of the cities’ density and productivity, this size-cost balance would look something like this.


We would then expect our cities to have evolved over time – think many decades – so that they are, more or less, scattered over the  curve around that point of optimum . What is more interesting is the type of infrastructural/planning intervention a city would need to get closer to the optimum , if they happen to be a long way to either side of it. For cities that are located to the left of the optimum , the city suffers from insufficient interactions. These are cities that are not meeting their potential because their population do not enjoy adequate internal mobility. Climbing the hill to the left would then require providing such cities with better intra-city transit systems.

The cities to the other side of the hill, on the other hand, have usually grown too large because of their economic success resulting in an escalation of mobility costs. To minimize the mobility tolls while maintaining social interaction, these cities would then benefit from densification facilitating shorter-distance interactions more efficiently.

Examining infrastructure needs of cities in the UK from this perspective points to a systematic abundance of cities that are to the left of the performance hill and in need of better internal mobility and accessibility.[5] However, if we really insisted on going ahead with inter– rather than intra-city solutions, what the agglomeration-based inter-city transport arguments point to is the complementarity that exists between the needs of cities that are not realizing their potentials to the left of the hill and their counterparts on the other side of the curve. If two such units happened to be in one another’s neighborhood, then an adjustment of urban boundaries and provision of comparable transport between the two cities would help configure a metropolitan area that potentially performs better than the two initial units.

One thing to note here is that this mutual improvement on the original city units is not a given. It is perfectly possible to sacrifice performance balance from a particularly well-performing urban center to provide support for an ill-performing unit on the periphery.

So what?

Going back to the choice of cities or regions to connect in the North, we can now make this implicit reasoning in the existing agglomeration arguments explicit and look at all the possible city pair combinations and pick the pair that delivers the closest performance to the optimum . This is exactly what we have done for all cities in England and Wales defined at various spatial scales and over various neighborhood distances.[6] So, how do our synthetic city-regions look when mapped?

Both of the above maps highlight the top 1% most frequent pairings when aggregating various distances and definitions of cities onto the 2011 Travel-To-Work Areas. A keen observer would notice that of these highly frequent pairings, regardless of the overall method, quite a few show pairings of a city with itself – most prominently that of London but also those of Manchester, Leicester, Exeter, and Chelmsford. These effectively note that there are units that have the potential to be better linked while being situated in the same overall Travel-to-Work area. What we need to note right afterwards is that none of these TTWAs have an intra-city transport infrastructure comparable to the one overseen by Transport for London that does in fact provide the type of connectivity the framework is suggesting.

The other important take away from these maps is the observation that many cities – take Sheffield as a case in point – tend not to form recurring links with any one place. What is being highlighted in such cases is that many cities across the country have infrastructure needs that are very much unique to themselves. These places won’t readily lend themselves to inter-city region-building schemes as their infrastructural need, be it better internal mobility or increased density, is not complemented by any of their neighbors. Such units would benefit more from tailored infrastructure solutions that address their needs internally.

Finally, let us introduce a crucial constraint and focus on the Preston-Bradford area for brevity. Instead of aggregating at all distances looking at all possibilities, we can choose our pairings preferring closer pairs over those further apart unless there are no suitable pairs available locally. This allows us to gradually grow regions outward and build on existing proximities. The top 5% most frequent of these pairings across the Pennines look like this.

What we tend not see in these pairings are strong links between Preston and Bradford – note that it is only under the purely agglomerative approach and without our geographic constraint that we see a link between Preston and Bradford. This brings us back to what appears to be the arbitrary types of choices of regions to connect when considering transport projects to boost the economy.

Caveats or why we could still do with a trans-Pennine study anyway

The approach we have reviewed does in fact let us identify the infrastructural needs of city units across spatial scales. It does also provide a systematic way of identifying potential intra- and inter-city transport links. What it does not do, however, is provide a cost-benefit assessment that would gauge the cost of realistically implementing such transport connections versus the real-terms economic benefits they might provide. However, what this approach can do in a more systematic manner than Cost-Benefit Analysis is to help to set out a feasible set of options based on a genuine system-wide analytical framework rather than simply a project-based approach.

Dr Hadi Arbabi
Department of Civil & Structural Engineering
The University of Sheffield







Early Career Researchers Changing the Tone of the Debate

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The worlds of academia and UK research councils are increasingly interested in interdisciplinary research due to its ability to generate new insights and perspectives on often complex and intricate topics and issues (Phillipson and Lowe, 2006). There is also a body of research to suggest that interdisciplinary research teams that include early career researchers have mutual benefits for the both the ECR and research organisation; the ECRs develop their research and interpersonal skills and the organisation can retain and development new talent (Sobey et al., 2013).

In March 2019 PIN was delighted to welcome back early career researchers (ECRs) old and new to our second ECR workshop in Sheffield. PIN, with the full support of the ESRC  and under the leadership of Professor Leaza McSorley, is committed to developing ECRs interested in cross-cutting themes that affect productivity. Building on the success of our first ECR sandpit in November 2018, we hosted our second two day ECR event to incorporate the expertise shared at the PIN conference and mentoring from a range of experts in the field.

On the first day of the ECR event participants joined the PIN conference and heard fascinating insights on a range of productivity issues from our keynote speakers Professor Sir Paul Collier, Professor Jennifer Rubin, and Murray Sherwin. Lively debate and discussion ensued as our esteemed panel experts shared views on productivity in places, practice and prospects. For an overview of the conference, see our Advancing the Debate blog.

On the second day we heard from Lukas Nüse and Armando García Schmidt from the Inclusive Productivity project at Bertelsmann-stiftung, an organisation whose programmes deal with the challenges that result from globalization, demographic change and the growing diversity of Germany’s population. Lukas shared their approach to inclusive productivity and the Q & A that followed raised what for some was a surprising insight into Germany’s productivity divide between the North and the South, not dissimilar to the issues facing the UK.

This was followed by a bid writing development workshop from Professor Tim Vorley. Tim provided an overview of the PIN open call  along with sharing advice and valuable insights on bid preparation. Having heard from the German and UK productivity research landscape in the morning it was the New Zealand perspective that followed after lunch. Murray Sherwin built on his key note speech delivered at the conference to answer questions and share his views on the pressing issues that merit further research. Full of questions, our ECRs were then mentored by PIN members including Professors Leaza McSorley, Philip McCann and Dr Rob Wapshott, who advised them on the questions that they had about their own research.

We look forward to continuing our support for the network of talented and engaged ECRs that we are seeing emerge with the encouragement of PIN. There will be further opportunities for the ECRs to become part of the PIN network and updates on this will be shared via the mailing list and Twitter.


Phillipson, J. and Lowe, P. (2006) ‘Special Issue Guest Editorial: The Scoping of an Interdisciplinary Research Agenda’, Journal of Agricultural Economics. doi: 10.1111/j.1477-9552.2006.00044.x.

Sobey, A. J. et al. (2013) ‘Incorporation of Early Career Researchers within multidisciplinary research at academic institutions’, Research Evaluation. doi: 10.1093/reseval/rvt004.

Advancing the Debate (#PIN2019)

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In March, we were delighted to bring together a diverse audience of policymakers, businesses, academics and many others who have a desire to address the UK’s productivity puzzle. We are very grateful to our host Lord Jim O’Neill and keynote speakers; Professor Sir Paul Collier, Murray Sherwin and Professor Jennifer Rubin, for leading an action packed day of discussions around all of aspects of UK productivity now and into the future. In this short overview blog, you can access some of the talks from the conference as well as hearing about next steps. You can also check out the full conference brochure by clicking on the photo below and get a sense of live commentary on the conference Twitter wall.

In a return to his native Sheffield, Professor Sir Paul Collier kicked off the conference with a bang with a rousing keynote speech entitled “Restoring Convergence: Productivity and Prosperity in Britain’s Regions”. You can watch Sir Paul’s talk in its entirety below.

Keynote speaker: Sir Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. Sir Paul’s research covers fragile states; restoring growth in African economies, the implications of group psychology for development; migration and refugees, which are the subject of his two most recent books; urbanization in poor countries, a program which has just won challenge funding from the Foreign Office; and the crisis in modern capitalism, which is the subject of his most recent book, The Future of Capitalism, published in October. Sir Paul received a knighthood in 2014 for services to promoting research and policy change in Africa and has been listed as one of the hundred most influential public thinkers in five of the past ten years.

Our first panel discussion of the day looked at “Productivity in Place” and was chaired by our own Advisory Board Chair, Lord Jim O’Neill. Professor Sir Paul Collier stayed on stage and was joined by Dame Kate Barker (Industrial Strategy Commission), Dr Joaquim Oliveira Martins (OECD) and Paul Swinney (Centre for Cities). Panellists discussed a wide range of topics such as:

• The opportunities to work in partnership through local industrial strategies to create more prosperous and productive communities.
• How the UK’s Shared Prosperity Fund will tackle inequality by raising productivity.
• The focus on place based growth can address regional imbalance between London (and its hinterland) and elsewhere.
• Alternative perspectives on the regional productivity agenda and the wellbeing of places and their populations.
• Lessons and best practice from places that have successfully addressed the challenges of regional inequality and low productivity.

Panel 1 at PIN2019 featuring Lord Jim O'Neill, Dame Kate Barker and Dr Joaquim Oliveira-Martins in the photo

Following a lively panel Q & A with the audience, a short break allowed attendees to digest and further discuss some of themes covered so far. Indeed, one of the primary aims of the PIN conference was to create these sorts of discussions and connections in the room.  Professor Tim Vorley, Co-director of PIN, picked up on the theme of creating connections and multi-disciplinary working to break down silos, by announcing the second round of the #pieceofthepuzzle campaign.  Have you got an innovative idea related to UK productivity? We’d like to hear from you. Tim also provided an update on the regional events that PIN is running in order to test and refine our insights. All of our evidence reviews to date can be found in the upcoming “Productivity Perspectives”; a book written by our team of thematic experts which will be published by Edward Elgar in Summer 2019. You can watch Tim Vorley’s 15 minute update below.

We were delighted to have a number of international guests at #PIN2019, sharing learning from their own national contexts as well as global research. None travelled further than our second keynote speaker, Chair of the New Zealand Productivity Commission, Murray Sherwin. The New Zealand Productivity Commission has been looking into the country’s own productivity issues for around 10 years and Murray shared from this rich experience.

Keynote Speaker: Murray Sherwin, Chair, New Zealand Productivity Commission. Murray is an economist with over 40 years of experience in a wide variety of public policy roles. He has been Chair of the New Zealand Productivity Commission since it commenced operations in April 2011. The Commission – an independent Crown entity – conducts in-depth inquiry reports on topics selected by the Government, carries out productivity- related research, and promotes understanding of productivity issues. Murray’s previous appointments include: Chief Executive and Director General of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry; Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand; member of the Board of Executive Directors of the World Bank; and member of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Group.

Next to the stage was our panel of experts looking at the nitty gritty of “Productivity in Practice”. Chaired by Andrew Paterson, Deputy Director, Local Growth Analysis (BEIS), the panel lineup included Dr Melissa Carson (Be the Business), Dr Douglas Dawson (Liberty Industries Group) and Sonali Parekh (Federation of Small Businesses). The panel discussed a wide range of issues through short inputs and discussion with the audience, including:

• Whether a lack of skills is responsible for poor productivity performance in UK firms.
• The extent to which small businesses or particular sectors are the reason for poor productivity in the UK.
• The extent to which under investment by UK companies explains poor productivity growth.
• Weak leadership and poor management meaning businesses do not have clear strategies for business growth.
• The importance of supply chains in promoting productivity of particular sectors and places.
• The extent to which innovation and knowledge based capital will be the future driver of productivity in firms.

We caught up with Sonali Parekh after her panel discussion to ask what she felt were the key issues around productivity. Watch below to hear what she had to say.

Our final keynote speech of the day was from Professor Jennifer Rubin, Executive Chair of the ESRC. Professor Rubin spoke on “Widening the Lens on UK Productivity”, including the valuable place that social sciences has in the debate and the wide range of initiatives supported by ESRC in this space including the Centre for Economic Performance, What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, What Works Wellbeing evidence programme and the Skills Employment Survey.

Professor Rubin also spoke about vital the role of social sciences research in supporting the foundations of the UK’s Industrial Strategy and it’s associated ‘Grand Challenges’.

Professor Jennifer Rubin

The final panel of the day looked to the future of UK productivity, with the topic ‘Productivity Prospects’. Chaired by Nesta’s Head of Innovation, Jen Rae, who welcomed Murray Sherwin back to the stage alongside a fantastic array of experts: Professor Julia Black (LSE), Shamus Rae (KPMG), Armando García Schmidt (Bertelsmann Foundation)

• What we should be focusing on in terms of stimulating both future productivity growth and societal wellbeing.
• Implications of automation and AI on the future of work.
• Corporate philanthropy: 19th century growth was influenced by philanthropy of industrialists through educational institutions etc., how could we rejuvenate that spirit?
• What governments aren’t doing or need to do differently to unlock the productivity puzzle.
• Financial services regulation: what are the rules of the game in which our economy works? How do we move forward?
• Thoughts on the regulatory context behind the swing towards property and asset holding for wealth creation, rather than more productive routes (a debate led by Sir Paul Collier) – can we and should we changes this situation?

To close the conference, Professor Philip McCann, PIN Co-director, shared our gratitude to all those who joined us and continue to work alongside us to help advance the debate on UK productivity.

While delegates continued their conversations, we pulled a few aside to tell us why they think productivity is so important. With about a minute’s notice, we think Andrew Williams came up with a fantastic summary! We’ll leave you with Andrew’s thoughts: