To learn from their European counterparts, UK cities must compare like-with-like

Hamburg: better than Manchester, alas. Image: Getty.

For cities to better understand their strengths and weaknesses, and what policies might help them to grow, it is crucial that they can compare themselves to the performance of other places. However, making these comparisons can be very difficult, especially at an international level, as cities often struggle to find data that covers comparable urban geographies. And there's another more basic problem, given the hundreds of cities in the world that could be used as potential benchmarks: knowing where to look.

As a result, it is tempting for places to simply replicate well-known examples of “iconic” cities’ policies – such as Barcelona’s economic development strategy, Copenhagen’s green transports approach, Leipzig’s urban regeneration success, and Bilbao and its famous “Guggenheim effect”. However, what works in one place is dependent on specific social and economic conditions. That means policy replication is potentially ineffective unless you are comparing like-with-like.

Instead, cities need a better insight into which places they are closely related to economically, to understand what they can learn from their similar counterparts. That is why in our recent report Competing with the Continent, the Centre for Cities created groups of comparable cities across Europe based on their industrial structure. For each UK city we considered the share of jobs in each sector and looked for the continental cities with the statistically closest industrial mix.

Comparing the performance of cities that have a similar industrial structure is particularly useful, as it helps us to better understand the reasons for any differences between places that the analysis highlights. 

Take Manchester, for example – based on the proportion of jobs in each sector of its economy, out of all European cities, it is most similar to Hamburg in Germany. But although the economic structure is similar in the two cities, productivity levels are considerably different: the average economic output of each worker in Manchester was £43,500 in 2011, more than 50 per cent less than that of workers in Hamburg (£67,100).

What can explain such a productivity gap between two highly similar economies? Our analysis shows that one major difference between the two cities is the level of education of their resident population. Interestingly both cities have a similar share of high-skilled residents (31 per cent in Manchester and 32 per cent in Hamburg), but Manchester is home to a much higher sharer low-skilled residents than Hamburg: 34 per cent of the former’s residents had less than 5 good GCSEs as their highest education level, while only 15 per cent of Hamburg’s population had an equivalent level of education.

Another difference is the number of patent applications in the two cities. In 2011, there were around 24 patents applications per 100,000 inhabitants in Hamburg, but just 5 per 100,000 inhabitants in Manchester.

These comparisons suggest that the reason for the productivity gap between the two places is likely to be the contrasting quality of their economic output: although the overarching industrial structure in the two cities is the sames, firms in Hamburg are more innovative overall and have access to a higher-skilled labour pool, making them more productive. 

For Manchester, this means that the answer to boosting productivity does not necessarily come from changing its industrial mix, but rather from improving the quality of the goods and services it produces. Above all, to upscale their production, firms in Manchester need access to a more skilled -- and therefore productive -- labour force than is currently available.

Further investigation is required to fully understand local differences and potential policy implications that this kind of city-by-city comparison can offer. But comparing places based on their industrial structures provides a first step to more relevant city comparisons and better policy prescriptions -- a much more effective strategy than for cities to copy ideas from other places which their economic structure bears no relation to. To find out which of their continental counterparts each UK city is closest to, explore our data tool.

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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