British cities are falling behind their European competitors – so what do we do?

Just one of the many European cities eating Britain's lunch. Image: Getty.

As is now well established, the UK’s urban areas play a critical role in the UK economy. But until now, little has been known about how the UK compares to other countries in this respect, and how individual UK cities compete against European counterparts.

The Centre for Cities' new report Competing with the Continent presents an in-depth picture of how UK city economies compare to 330 European cities from across 17 countries. It reveals a number of important findings which should be a key consideration for the government as it seeks to create an economy that works for all, at a time when the UK is set to leave the EU.

Here are four key takeaways:

1. UK cities play a bigger role in the national economy than in other countries

The UK is the most urbanised economy in Europe: its cities generate 60 per cent of the country’s GVA (gross valued added).

In comparison, Spanish cities make up just 45 per cent of their national GVA, German cities 36 per cent, and Italian cities just 32 per cent. (See the full breakdown here).

2. UK cities also make the biggest contribution to the European economy

In total, UK cities represent 21 per cent of Europe’s urban economic output, the largest share of any nation. As a comparison, German cities represent 19 per cent of urban Europe GVA and French cities 18 per cent (the full breakdown is here).

In addition, London is the largest economy in Europe, with a GVA of £340bn. The chart below gives a list of all the cities in the report by GVA – London, Manchester and Birmingham all make the top 20:

3. Yet UK cities are lagging behind in terms of productivity

Despite the UK economy being so dependent on its cities, too many of them fall behind their continental competitors on productivity.

Nine out of 10 UK cities (57 out of 63) perform below the European city average, and more than half are among the 25 per cent least productive cities in the continent.

The map below gives a quick breakdown of the UK’s productivity problem – a couple of cities in the South East do very well, but many others are lagging behind (more detail on this here).

4. Poor skills levels are likely to be the biggest cause of low productivity.

UK cities are home to the third largest concentration of low-skilled residents in the continent, behind only Spanish and Polish cities.

Only six UK cities have a lower proportion of low-skilled residents than the European average. Three out of four UK cities also have a lower proportion of high-skilled residents than the European average, although nationally the proportion of high-skilled residents is high.

So what do we do?

These findings raise serious questions about how Theresa May can go about achieving her ambition of spreading prosperity to all parts of the country, raising wages for residents of all cities, and ensuring UK cities are able to attract investment and trade on the international scene.

Given the country’s economic structure and the growing strength of its services sector, it is clear that cities must attract more knowledge-intensive firms and jobs in order to compete in the years to come. To do so, cities must also provide the highly-qualified workforce which these types of firms require – and that will require a long term commitment to improve educational attainment and skills levels across the country.

Finally, policymakers should focus on making the most of big cities, which largely lag behind compared to their counterparts. If these cities are firing on all cylinders, they could provide opportunities for individuals living far beyond their administrative boundaries.

You can read about these findings in more detail here. Or you can head to our European Cities Data Tool to explore all our data on the 330 cities covered in the report.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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