Where are Britain's biggest city economies?

Couldn't work out how to illustrate this so here is a metaphor. 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 Europe's cities.

We talk a lot, round here, about which are the largest cities by population. (Nerds gonna nerd.) We talk a fair amount, too, about which have the richest residents.

What we don't talk about so much is the intersection of those two factors: which cities have the biggest economies? Where are Britain’s powerhouses and engines really located? London, obviously – but beyond that, what does the league table look like?

Let's fire up the datatron.

The first thing to say is that London is so much bigger than its nearest rivals – so many more people, generating so much more wealth – that it completely knackers the charts. Here's a scatter graph plotting population (of each city's primary urban area, explained here) against GVA (gross value added, a measure of economic output).

See if you can somehow pick London out of the crowd:

Let’s take it as read that London is far bigger than the other cities. To make these charts look in any way meaningful we're going to have to drop the capital.

Here's a bar chart showing the 20 largest city economies outside London.

GVA in £bn. Image: Centre for Cities.

Unsurprisingly, Manchester and Birmingham are way, way ahead of the pack. What’s perhaps more unexpected is that, at least on this measure, the Manchester economy is slightly bigger. I thought this might be a quirk of the population data – using a definition on which Manchester simply has more people than Birmingham – but surprisingly, no.


That said, there's not a lot of space between them. They're of the same order of magnitude, and a long way ahead of the next cities down. Which gets to be second city is an unanswerable question, but nowhere else is really in the running for the title.

There are a few more surprises in the next bit of the chart. That Bristol would have a bigger economy than Leeds, for example: maybe this is me making dodgy assumptions, but Leeds feels like it should be on the next level up from Bristol, not struggling to keep up with it. And yet.

Similarly, it's striking that Reading’s economy is nearly as big as Nottingham's, and that Cardiff is out performed by Bournemouth, Milton Keynes and Southampton. As ever, it's one thing to know there's a north-south divide in theory. But Reading? On a par with Sheffield?

Part of this is down to size, of course – more people will mean a bigger economy, generally speaking. So here's that scattergraph again, without London this time. This time it's interactive, so you can hover over a dot to find out which city it is and get the data.

 

There's a clear correlation between the two variables (duh). But it's not perfect. Dots that are higher than they should be represent cities that are outperforming the average (economies bigger than you'd expect for a given population); dots that are lower than they should be are the opposite.

Reading is on one side of that notional line; Sheffield on the other. You can probably guess which way round.

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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Budget 2017: Philip Hammond just showed that rejecting metro mayors was a terrible, terrible error

Sorry, Leeds, nothing here for you: Philip Hammond and his big red box. Image: Getty.

There were some in England’s cities, one sensed, who breathed a sigh of relief when George Osborne left the Treasury. Not only was he the architect of austerity, a policy which had seen council budgets slashed as never before: he’d also refused to countenance any serious devolution to city regions that refused to have a mayor, an innovation that several remained dead-set against.

So his political demise after the Brexit referendum was seen, in some quarters, as A Good Thing for devolution. The new regime, it was hoped, would be amenable to a variety of governance structures more sensitive to particular local needs.

Well, that theory just went out of the window. In his Budget statement today, in between producing some of the worst growth forecasts that anyone can remember and failing to solve the housing crisis, chancellor Philip Hammond outlined some of the things he was planning for Britain’s cities.

And, intentionally or otherwise, he made it very clear that it was those areas which had accepted Osborne’s terms which were going to win out. 

The big new announcement was a £1.7bn “Transforming Cities Fund”, which will

“target projects which drive productivity by improving connectivity, reducing congestion and utilising new mobility services and technology”.

To translate this into English, this is cash for better public transport.

And half of this money will go straight to the six city regions which last May elected their first metro mayor elections. The money is being allocated on a per capita basis which, in descending order of generosity, means:

  • £250m to West Midlands
  • £243 to Greater Manchester
  • £134 to Liverpool City Region
  • £80m to West of England
  • £74m to Cambridgeshire &d Peterborough
  • £59m to Tees Valley

That’s £840m accounted for. The rest will be available to other cities – but the difference is, they’ll have to bid for it.

So the Tees Valley, which accepted Osborne’s terms, will automatically get a chunk of cash to improve their transport system. Leeds, which didn’t, still has to go begging.

One city which doesn’t have to go begging is Newcastle. Hammond promised to replace the 40 year old trains on the Tyne & Wear metro at a cost of £337m. In what may or may not be a coincidence, he also confirmed a new devolution deal with the “North of Tyne” region (Newcastle, North Tyne, Northumberland). This is a faintly ridiculous geography for such a deal, since it excludes Sunderland and, worse, Gateshead, which is, to most intents and purposes, simply the southern bit of Newcastle. But it’s a start, and will bring £600m more investment to the region. A new mayor will be elected in 2018.

Hammond’s speech contained other goodies for cites too, of course. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • £123m for the regeneration of the Redcar Steelworks site: that looks like a sop to Ben Houchen, the Tory who unexpectedly won the Tees Valley mayoral election last May;
  • A second devolution deal for the West Midlands: tat includes more money for skills and housing (though the sums are dwarfed by the aforementioned transport money);
  • A new local industrial strategy for Greater Manchester, as well as exploring “options for the future beyond the Fund, including land value capture”;
  • £300m for rail improvements tied into HS2, which “will enable faster services between Liverpool and Manchester, Sheffeld, Leeds and York, as well as to Leicester and other places in the East Midlands and London”.

Hammond also made a few promises to cities beyond England: opening negotiations for a Belfast City Deal, and pointing to progress on city deals in Dundee and Stirling.


A city that doesn’t get any big promises out of this budget is – atypically – London. Hammond promised to “continue to work with TfL on the funding and financing of Crossrail 2”, but that’s a long way from promising to pay for it. He did mention plans to pilot 100 per cent business rate retention in the capital next year, however – which, given the value of property in London, is potentially quite a big deal.

So at least that’s something. And London, as has often been noted, has done very well for itself in most budgets down the year.

Many of the other big regional cities haven’t. Yet Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby were all notable for their absence, both from Hammond’s speech and from the Treasury documents accompanying it.

And not one of them has a devolution deal or a metro mayor.

(If you came here looking for my thoughts on the housing element of the budget speech, then you can find them over at the New Statesman. Short version: oh, god.)

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

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook