When looking at the roles that different places play in their wider economies, there are two arguments that come to the fore:

  1. A focus on cities does nothing for their surrounding towns and villages, which have been ‘left behind’.
    The first briefing in this series showed this not to be true – cities provide prosperity for their broader areas.

  2. A focus on the city centre of big cities (as advocated by Centre for Cities and others) does little for struggling parts of the city, such as Oldham in Manchester’s case or West Bromwich in Birmingham’s case.

It is this second question that this briefing looks at by looking at Manchester and Birmingham.

Currently some parts of both cities are able to better access the prosperity generated in the city centre much better than other parts. However, this is because, while successful in their own right, both city centres are currently too small.

London’s experience shows that larger, more successful city centres should bring prosperity to most parts of both cities. And so better performing city centres in both cities are an important part of improving the outcomes of people who live across them.


In Manchester the city centre mainly spreads prosperity within a green ring – defined by those areas with higher-than-average commuting to the centre – that includes the inner authorities of Manchester and Salford and follows the train line down to Hale in the south.

These areas are made up of two groups.

The first is those that have higher commutes but lower incomes, which are mainly in inner city Manchester.

For these places, the city centre provides access to prosperity by being a source of lower-paid jobs. 

The second is those areas with high shares of commuting to the centre and high incomes.

These areas are either in the city centre (think young professionals) or around the fringes of the ring, in places such as Didsbury and Prestwich.

Those that fall outside of the reach of the city centre, classified as ‘lower commuting’, are further away from it.

Again, splitting this geography by income shows some interesting findings.

Lower-income areas are found mainly in the inner urban places such as Oldham, Rochdale and Bury.

Higher-income areas are in more urban fringe areas on the outskirts of the city.


concrete building and houses under gray sky

Similar patterns are seen in Birmingham, with even clearer geographic distinctions.

The areas in the green ring that disproportionately benefit from the prosperity generated in Birmingham city centre, are mainly in Birmingham local authority and parts of Solihull.

The areas that benefit from the lower-skilled jobs available are in inner city locations in Birmingham local authority.

And areas benefiting disproportionately from higher-paid jobs are in the centre of Birmingham or to the north or the south, in places like Sutton Coldfield and Kings Heath.

Most of Solihull to the east and the Black Country to the west have much weaker connections to the city centre.

As in Manchester, lower-income areas are in the older urban footprints of places like Wolverhampton, Walsall and West Bromwich...

... while higher income areas are in leafier parts such as Tettenhall and Stourbridge in the Black Country and across most of the Solihull local authority area.

Central London shows what more successful Manchester and Birmingham city centres should mean for the rest of their cities

This is not the case in London. Central London plays a much larger role in the London (and national) economy than the city centres of Manchester and Birmingham do in their respective cities, and it spreads prosperity much further as a result.

So, while Birmingham and Manchester city centres have been through a huge turnaround in recent decades, and are successful in their own right, they are too small, and this limits how much different parts of the cities benefit from the jobs that are available in them.

Increasing the size of both city centres is an important part of making other places more prosperous

As is the case in the cities and towns debate, politically it isn’t easy to make the case that growing the city centre will bring benefits for surrounding areas, especially in places like Oldham and West Bromwich, compared to Didsbury and Sutton Coldfield. But London’s experience shows that an expanding centre is an important part of bringing change across the whole city and beyond. And, while it is far from the only policy intervention required to increase prosperity across both cities, it is very unlikely that this will be achieved without a more successful city centre in both cities.

Explore the full series

a view of a city with mountains in the background

Does ‘trickle out’ work? How cities help their surrounding towns

Challenging the misleading political narrative that pits towns against cities, Director of Policy and Research Paul Swinney sets out the role of cities in generating prosperity for surrounding places.

Why we need more ‘trickle out’ economics

The underperformance of many of the UK’s largest cities hurts not only residents in them but the towns and villages around them too.

What determines the performance of a high street?

Home to many hundreds of thousands of jobs, Leeds plays a central role in Yorkshire's economy. But just how reliant are high streets in the city's surrounding towns on its success?

City Minutes:
Do Manchester and Birmingham city centres spread prosperity?

Chief Executive Andrew Carter is joined by Paul Swinney, Director of Policy and Research at Centre for Cities to discuss how improving and expanding Manchester and Birmingham city centres can bring benefits to places like Oldham and West Bromwich, and the role this plays in levelling up.