Which British cities will be hit hardest by Brexit?

Theresa May in Brussels in June. 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.

A lot of my time at work is given over to worrying fitfully about two things. One is cities policy. The other is Brexit.

What could be more thrilling, then, than a report which combines those two topics into a single piece of research? The answer, as it turns out, is almost anything, because this report is one of the most depressing things I’ve seen in ages.

The study, a joint effort between the Centre for Cities and LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, looks at what both “Hard” and “Soft” Brexit would do to the economies of 62 British cities. (In the unlikely event you’re unsure, “soft” Brexit means we stay in a free trade area with the EU, but have to content with new non-tariff barriers; “hard” Brexit means we leave the free trade area and have to deal with tariffs as well.)

In either scenario, literally every city loses out. Only two cities – Crawley and Barnsley; neither exactly an economic powerhouse – would lose less than 1 per cent of GVA, a measure of productivity, even in the softer scenario.

The vast majority of cities will lose between 1 and 1.5 per cent of GVA under the Soft Brexit scenario. Worst affected would be Aberdeen, heart of the Scottish petrochemical industry which would lose 2.1 per cent. That’s about as much productivity as the UK as gained in its lost decade since 2006.

And this, remember, is in the gentler scenario. Should we have a Hard Brexit – the plan the British government seems to favour – the impact will be twice as bad, and vast majority of cities will be losing between 2 and 3 per cent of GVA.

Aberdeen, once again the hardest hit, would lose 3.7 per cent. Indeed, the ranking of cities doesn’t change much between soft and hard Brexit: seven cities make the top 10 under either scenario; seven more make the bottom 10. A harder Brexit will take a deeper gouge out of the British economy, but won’t change which cities are the worst afflicted.

Much of the debate around Brexit has had a “turkeys voting for Christmas” subtext to it: a suggestion that the areas that voted Leave would be those most likely to take a hit.

The CfC/CEP report shows that the picture is rather more nuanced than that. In both scenarios, the report says:

“...it is economically vibrant cities - predominantly in the South of England - which will be hit hardest and most directly by Brexit... In contrast, the cities least directly affected by either form of Brexit are mostly less prosperous places in the North, Midlands and Wales.”

That implies a couple of things. One is that it wasn’t turkeys voting for Christmas at all: by and large, those cities with the most to lose from Brexit were actually more likely to vote against it. The other is that, since it’ll be the richer cities which are hit hardest, the aggregate effect of Brexit might actually be worse than a simple average suggests.

That, though, is only the short term effect. The report also makes clear that the most affected cities are also the most resilient, and so the best-placed to respond to the shock. Poorer cities may be less vulnerable to the post-Brexit downturn; but they’ll also find it harder to bounce back.

Oh – and then there’s the matter of EU regional funds, which go overwhelmingly to poorer, more pro-Brexit areas, and which are incredibly unlikely to be replaced by the British government. But that’s another story.

 

Here’s a chart showing the predicted reduction in GVA in every city in the report (blue is under soft Brexit, red and blue combined is Hard Brexit). I’ve grouped them by region, to enable you to see how different parts of the country will be affected.

Click to expand.

Andrew Carter, the CfC’s chief executive, called on the government to “secure the best possible trade deal with the EU”:

“That means ensuring that our post-Brexit trading arrangements are as close to our current relationship with Europe as possible.”

“But it’s also critical that the government uses its forthcoming industrial strategy to give cities across the country the investment, powers and responsibilities they need to make their economies as successful and competitive as possible.”

Such a move would make sense: cities must be given as many tools as possible to deal with the shocks ahead. The fear, though, must be that Brexit will take up so much of the government’s time that devolution policy is basically off the table. Even if ministers still want to empower their cities – by no means certain, when you look at the rest of Theresa May’s agenda – it’s by no means clear that they have the capacity to do it.


You can read the full report here.

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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The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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