Why are carbon emissions so much higher in Swansea and Middlesbrough?

These belting chimneys are actually in Canada, but it's a cool picture so let's go with it. Image: Tony Webster

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.

It’s the 21st century. We get it.

Climate change is an existential threat, global warming is bad, carbon emissions are largely to blame, and if we don’t do something terribly drastic soon, everything we know and love will perish in a Hollywood-movie orgy of rising sea levels, cataclysmic extreme weather events, and men looking seriously at enormous banks of screens.

And yet we carry on, firing up fossil fuel power stations, driving petrol-chugging cars, and producing lots of stuff in emission-belting factories.

Cities, inevitably, are a big part of this. They are congregations of a lot of people, consuming resources, driving to work, and working in CO2-emitting offices, warehouses, and factories.

But some are worse than others. Londoners, who are less likely to sit in badly polluting cars because they have the wonderful tube, emit less CO2 per capita. There may be loads of them, but relative to how many there are, the emissions aren’t that terrible.

Swansea and Middlesbrough, however, are terrible.

Hover over the dots to see the figures for individual cities. Graphic: Centre for Cities.

By the most recent figures in 2014, CO2 emissions per capita stood at 26.78 tons in Swansea, and 26.22 tons in Middlesbrough. For context, the national average is 6.25 tons, and the third most emitting city is Newport, which belts out 7.46 tons per capita, while London only manages a paltry 4.4.

That’s not a particularly recent change, either. Swansea and Middlesbrough have led the field every single year, by quite some margin, since the start of the Centre for Cities’ data in 2006.

Why? Steel, basically.

Middlesbrough hit it off as a big booming iron town. In the Victorian age amid the throes of the industrial revolution, Middlesbrough was known as ‘Ironopolis’, and Dorman Long – a successor firm to one of the big beasts of steel production of the industry – built the Sydney Harbour Bridge, became a major part of the nationalised British Steel Corporation, and only ceased producing steel on Teesside in 2015, not yet covered by the data we have available.

Up until 2010, the area also had a steel plant run by Corus, which later became Tata Steel, the company that got caught up in a steely face-off last year over production in Port Talbot – part of the conurbation of, you guessed it, Swansea.

That big fat steel plant near Swansea. Image: Grubb via Wikimedia Commons

Both have strong power production bases, too. The Swansea area includes Baglan Bay, a bit fat gas-fired power station that has been trundling away since 2003, while Middlesbrough has a phenomenal four active fossil fuel power stations running.

As the area is on the edge of one of the largest historic coalfields in the country, that makes sense, but for a metro area with just under 400,000 people, it seems a little excessive.

But what seems strange is the change in these emissions. Not only are Swansea and Middlesbrough the most CO2-emitting cities in the country, they’re also getting worse.

Looking at the actual change in emissions per capita from 2010 to 2014, you can see that both cities are the only places in the countries that are polluting more.

Top five gross changes in emissions per capita 2010-2014. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

Middlesbrough is up by 8.33 tons, while Swansea is up by 0.13 tons.

Top ten percentage changes in emissions per capita 2010-2014. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

By percentage, the figures for Middlesbrough are pretty astonishing – it polluted 46.58 per cent more in 2014 than it did in 2010.

But it’s a complicated game of numbers.

Top ten percentage changes in emissions per capita 2005-2014. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

If you look right back to the earliest data, from 2005, you can see that Swansea is the only city that emitted more per capita in 2014 than it did almost a decade earlier – up by 4.44 per cent, or 1.14 tons per person.

But Middlesbrough’s not far behind. By percentage change, it has had the smallest decrease in emissions, churning out 16.38 per cent less CO2 per person than it did in 2005.

Top ten decreases in emissions per capita 2005-2014. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

But because it was so far ahead to start off with, its change is also the biggest gross fall – emitting 5.13 tons fewer per person in 2014 than in 2005.

The picture is unclear. Steel manufacturing in the UK is in a crisis period, with deals and government interventions only a short-term blip in a long-term story of decline, closure, and job losses.


As more data becomes available, and the futures of Britain’s steel plants become apparent, it’s likely that all UK cities will be emitting less CO2 per person year-on-year – and the gradual decommissioning of coal and gas-fired power stations and replacement with clean, shiny, cuddly renewable energy stations (like the big fat tidal power station they keep talking about building in South Wales) will only further that effect.

For now though, tough luck Swansea and Middlesbrough – we’re all pointing our judgmental green fingers at you. 

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What’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.


This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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