In skills and productivity, the Northern Powerhouse looks more like eastern Europe

Sofia, Bulgaria: A dead ringer for Sheffield. Image: Getty.

One of the most striking findings of the Centre for Cities' recent Competing with the Continent report is that most UK cities lag behind European counterparts in terms of productivity. That's a trend particularly evident in the Northern Powerhouse region, where all 21 cities are below the European urban productivity average of £56,300 Gross Value Added per worker, and all but two (Leeds and Warrington) are among the 25 per cent least productive places in the continent.

Indeed, as the map below shows, productivity in northern cities is closer to that of places in the east of Germany and eastern Europe, than to that of cities in the Greater South East of the UK, most of which perform above the continental average.

This highlights the scale of the task ahead for the Government in achieving the primary aim of the Northern Powerhouse initiative – building a powerful network of cities capable of counterbalancing London’s weight and influence.

The outlook for Northern cities appears even more challenging when we take a more detailed look at how their economies compare to European counterparts. Here are three big conclusions that can be drawn from our data:

The Northern Powerhouse’s largest cities are being out-performed by most western European cities.

Leeds is the most productive place in the north, but is ranked 239th out of 330 places in Europe with an average economic output of £46,600 per worker. That's 22 per cent lower than in Essen (£59,470 per worker), the European city which has the most similar economic structure to Leeds, and closer to Poznan (£47,300).

Manchester fares even worse, with an average economic output of £43,600 per worker – significantly lower than its most similar European counterpart, Hamburg (£67,100), and roughly the same productivity as Vilnius (£43,800).

Most northern cities are home to significantly more low-skilled residents than European competitors.

One of the aims of the Northern Powerhouse initiative is to secure more investors and businesses for places in the region, whether nationally or internationally. The availability of a skilled labour force is a key factor in where firms choose to locate.

Yet northern cities are performing poorly on this front compared to competitors across western and eastern Europe. All northern cities bar York are home to a higher share of low-skilled residents (i.e. those with less than 5 good GCSEs as a highest level of education) than the European city average (25 per cent).

In Hull, 43 per cent of residents are low-skilled, ahead of Liverpool (40 per cent) and Leeds (32 per cent). This is similar to the share of low-skilled residents in Polish cities, and more than twice as high as in cities in eastern Germany, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary and Bulgaria:

Higher labour costs in UK cities could potentially make cities in Eastern Europe more attractive to firms to invest in than Northern Powerhouse cities.

Labour costs in UK cities are roughly three times higher than in Poland and Hungary, and about six times higher than in Bulgaria. So while northern cities are home to large shares of low-skilled workers, their relatively high labour costs mean that they are not well-placed to compete with eastern European cities for globally mobile low-skilled jobs.

Instead, Northern cities need to focus primarily on becoming attractive places for high-skilled businesses – particularly in the knowledge-intensive services sector – if they are to be successful.

It’s all about skills

These findings demonstrate the scale of the challenge that national and city leaders face in helping northern cities overtake eastern European counterparts, as well as start to catch up with places in the south east of England. Above all, they highlight the central importance of improving skills in northern cities at all levels – from early years to GCSE attainment, academic and vocational qualifications. 

Doing so will be vital in ensuring places across the north are well-placed to compete with European counterparts for the high-value businesses and jobs which offer the best prospects of long-term growth and prosperity.

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

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To transform Australia’s cities, it should scrap its car parks

A Sydney car park from above. Image: Getty.

Parking may seem like a “pedestrian” topic (pun intended). However, parking is of increasing importance in metropolitan areas worldwide. On average, motor vehicles are parked 95 per cent of the time. Yet most transport analysis focuses on vehicles when they are moving.

Substantial amounts of land and buildings are set aside to accommodate “immobile” vehicles. In Australia, Brisbane provides 25,633 parking spaces in the CBD, Sydney 28,939 and Melbourne 41,687. In high-demand areas, car parks can cost far more than the vehicle itself.

However, parking is not just an Australian problem. By some estimates, 30,000 square kilometres of land is devoted to parking in Europe and 27,000 km² in the US. This parking takes up a large part of city space, much of it highly valued, centrally located land.

Traditionally, transport planners believed that generous parking allocations provided substantial benefits to users. In reality, excessive parking is known to adversely affect both transport and land use. These impacts, along with recent land-use, socioeconomic and technological trends, are prompting cities to start asking some important questions about parking.

Australian planners must engage with emerging trends to help cities work out the best way to reclaim and repurpose parking space in ways that enhance efficiency and liveability while minimising disruption.

Here we chart likely challenges and opportunities created by these trends over coming decades.

Key trends affecting parking space in cities. Image: author provided.

Land use

All Australian cities have policies to encourage densification, consolidation and infill development in their centres. In conjunction, some cities are setting maximum limits on parking to prevent it taking over valuable inner-city properties.

Transit-oriented development (TOD) has also become popular, at least on paper. This is another form of urban consolidation around transit nodes and corridors. It is known to benefit from high-quality urban design, “walkability”, “cyclability” and a mix of functions.

These developments mean that people who live in CBDs, inner-ring suburbs and near public transport stops will use cars less. Consequently, demand for parking will decrease.

Some non-TOD suburbs are trying to replicate inner-city features as well. For example, some suburban shopping centres have introduced paid parking. This is a significant shift from previous eras, when malls guaranteed ample free parking.

Suburbanites who lack easy public transport access will continue to rely on cars. But rather than driving all the way to a CBD, commuters will increasingly opt for park-and-ride at suburban stations, thereby increasing demand for park-and-ride lots at public transport interchanges. However, excessive capacity might hurt rather than help patronage.

Social trends

In addition to land use, several social trends will affect the need for parking.

First, young people are delaying getting drivers’ licences because driving is culturally less important to them than in previous generations.

Second, people of all ages are moving from outer suburbs to inner cities. For many, this means less driving because walking, cycling and public transport are more convenient in inner cities.


inally, the emergence of Uber, Lyft and vehicle-sharing arrangements means that people are not buying cars. Research suggests that each car-sharing vehicle removes nine to 13 individually owned vehicles from the road.

Together, these trends point to a reduced need for parking because there will be fewer cars overall.


The importance of technology in parking is rising – paving the way for “smarter” parking.

The emergence of a host of smartphone apps, such as ParkMe, Kerb, ParkHound and ParkWhiz, has begun to reshape the parking landscape. For the first time, users can identify and reserve parking according to price and location before starting their journeys.

Apps also make available a host of car parks that previously went unused – such as spaces in a residential driveway. This is because there was no mechanism for letting people know these were available.

In addition, smart pricing programs, such as SFPark in San Francisco, periodically adjust meter and garage pricing to match demand. This encourages drivers to park in underused areas and garages and reduces demand in overused areas.

The advent of autonomous vehicles promises to have dramatic impacts on transport and land use, including parking.

According to one school of thought, mobility services will own most autonomous vehicles, rather than individuals, due to insurance and liability issues. If this happens, far fewer vehicles and parking spaces will be needed as most will be “in motion” rather than parked most of the time.

More space for people and places

The Tikku (Finnish for ‘stick’), by architect Marco Casagrande, is a house with a footprint of just 2.5x5m, the size of a car parking space. Image: Casagrande Laboratory.

The next decade promises much change as emerging land-use, socioeconomic and technological trends reshape the need for, and use of, parking. Cities will devote less space to parking and more space to people and places.

Parking lanes will likely be repurposed as cycling lanes, shared streets, parklets, community gardens and even housing. Concrete parking lots, and faceless garages will likely be converted to much-needed residential, commercial and light industrial use.

The ConversationBy transforming parking, much urban land can turn from wasteland into vibrant activity space.

Dorina Pojani, Lecturer in Urban Planning, The University of Queensland; Iderlina Mateo-Babiano, Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning, University of Melbourne; Jonathan Corcoran, Professor, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, and Neil Sipe, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.