Factory towns: Which British cities still have big manufacturing industries?

SSI's steel plant in Redcar, which closed earlier this month. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

Whenever the British are bemoaning the state of their economy, one refrain can be heard above all others: Why don't we make anything any more? A century and a half ago, Britain was the workshop of the world; now it has an economy run entirely for the benefit of estate agents and hedge fund managers. This seems to worry everyone a bit.

That question, though, is more misleading than you might think. Uncomfortably dependent on an over-mighty financial sector the British economy may be – but the idea we don't make anything any more is demonstrably nonsense.

According to the sector trade body EEF, Britain’s manufacturing sector still employs about 2.6m people. It provides around 10 per cent of Britain’s GDP, and 44 per cent of its exports. Indeed, it's only in the last couple of years the UK dropped out of the list of the world's 10 largest manufacturing economies for the first time. (It's now 11th.)

So where is all this making stuff happening? The greatest concentration of activity is in the Northern Powerhouse belt, as one might perhaps expect. Tthe manufacturing sector provides more than 10 per cent of jobs in more than a third of largest cities (24 of the top 65). In nine cities, it's more than 15 per cent.

Britain's biggest workshop of all – in terms of its reliance on the sector, if not its overall output – is Burnley, where in 2013 manufacturing still provided more than 22 per cent of all jobs. During the industrial revolution, the east Lancashire town was a centre for the wool trade; today, it's the aerospace industry.

Other towns and cities whose residents are still employed in manufacturing in large numbers include Derby (engineering), Sunderland (cars), Telford and Hull (all sorts of stuff). Here's the top 10:

One city that's a lot further down this league table than you might expect is Redcar – or rather, in this dataset, Middlesbrough, the label which is used here for the entire Teeside conurbation.

Redcar has been in the headlines a lot recently, after SSI announced it was closing its steel plant in the town, at the cost of 2,200 jobs. That’s the sort of number that will devastate any medium sized town.

In Teeside as a whole, though, manufacturing provides just 9.4 per cent of all jobs. Of the 65 cities in this table, manufacturing provides a larger share of employment in 27 of them. (The one ranked immediately below Middlesbrough, incidentally, is Bournemouth.)

So if Britain is still making things – if manufacturing still makes up a whole 10th of the economy – then why does nobody seem to know about it?

It's tempting to conclude that it's the old London-centric media bias at work. Just 2.6 per cent of jobs in the capital are in the manufacturing sector: on this measure, of the 65 major British cities in this dataset, it ranks 63rd. The lower end of the league table is littered with its satellites (Cambridge, Reading, Brighton, Oxford) too. Perhaps we don’t talk about manufacturing just because the government and media don’t see it.

But there's another reason too. Since the late 1970s, Britain's manufacturing output has increased – but the number of people working in the sector has fallen by more than 60 per cent. That’s partly a mark of the sector’s productivity, which has grown far faster than that of Britain’s service industries.

But it does mean that, where once upon a time, a quarter of British jobs were in the manufacturing sector, now it’s just 8 per cent.

This country does still make things. It just doesn’t need many worker to do it. 


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.