Britain’s urban employment statistics suggest that George Osborne totally failed at austerity

Former chancellor George Osborne and his minder on a school trip. 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.

Editor's note: we've amended this one, after publiation, following feedback from the FT's economics editor, Chris Giles.

The motto of the monarch of the United Kingdom is, in French, Dieu et mon droit, which roughly translates as God and my right, though it more nebulously refers to the supposed divine right of monarchs.

But if the last government – you know, the one we voted for before the whole Brexit debacle – had a motto, it may perhaps have adopted the French motto Dieu et mes ciseaux – God and my scissorsThe terrible duo tag-team of George Osborne and David Cameron made austerity the buzz-word of the day, and trimming back the public sector was the mission. Snip, snip, George.

Luckily for our purposes, cities tend to be where most publicly funded jobs happen. Local services are concentrated in county towns and regional administrative hubs, while the cogs of national government are overwhelmingly piled on London because it’s, you know, the capital.

But which cities have all the publicly funded jobs? And have all that many of them really been cut?

Without further ado, let’s whip out the stats.

Looking very simply at gross numbers of publicly funded jobs in 2015, the results are obvious.

London comes out miles ahead, with 1.23m publicly funded jobs. Manchester and Birmingham are engaged in a sparring match for second place miles behind, at 294,600 and 284,800 respectively. Glasgow has 169,000, Newcastle has 131,000, and the rest dribble on. (You can hover over a city to see how many it has.)

But obviously gross numbers don’t tell you all that much. London may have 1.23m publicly funded jobs, but it’s a very huge city and thus presumably also has lots of other jobs.

It takes a little bit of mental acrobatics, but the ratio of private to public sector employment is a useful way around this. The basic guide here is that the higher the number, the fewer publicly funded jobs relative to total number of jobs there.

The national average is 2.78: in other words, for every single public sector job, there are not quite three private sector ones. (Or, to put it another way, there are two real jobs and then one spurious thing George Osborne will do every other Friday for £700k a year.)

So Crawley comes top of the list because it has relatively few public sector jobs. For every one publicly funded job, there are 7.18 private sector jobs.

Looked at in this way, London doesn’t seem so extraordinarily far out. In fact, by ratio of private to public sector employment, it’s the eighth least public sector city.

The most public-sector heavy cities. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

The most public-sector dominated places by this metric are Exeter, at 1.74, Birkenhead (1.58), Cambridge (1.46), Dundee at (1.43), and Oxford at (1.04).

While it might seem surprising to have cities like Exeter, Cambridge and Oxford so far up the list – cities that all come pretty high up other tables of economic success and personal income – one explanation could be the way the data is measured.


Publicly funded jobs is not necessarily the same as what we would conceive as public sector jobs. So while the public sector is normally counted as civil servants, nurses, and police officers, publicly funded jobs could in theory stretch as far as hired private contractors procured by the government for anything from PR to construction, or – as is possible in this case – research and development scientists and engineers supported by government funding to work on some cutting-edge stuff. It’s hard to know exactly.

So. Onto the juicy stuff: austerity. Let’s get a look at those savage graphs showing vast reductions in public sector jobs across Britain’s cities – thousands of inefficient publicly funded lackeys cast asunder in the great name of living within our means, Labour Labour Labour it’s all Labour’s fault, and, This is definitely not just George Osborne’s personal ideological zealotry.

But wait, what?

Most cities come up green on this map, meaning an increase in the gross numbers of publicly funded jobs in cities between 2010 and 2015, or only a very slight decrease.

Not that many cities are yellow, which would show a fall of over 1,100 publicly funded jobs between 2010 and 2015 (the course of the Coalition Government). And London – cue collective eye-roll – gained 138,800 publicly funded jobs over the period.

But again, gross figures can’t tell us everything.

Looking at the percentage change in publicly funded jobs between 2010 and 2015 is, if anything, even more damning for Osborne’s supposed plan.

Only one city, Worthing, shows a decrease of more than 10 per cent of publicly funded jobs over the five-year period, while eight cities saw an increase in publicly funded jobs of more than 10 per cent. Blackburn, out on its own, saw a 20.81 per cent increase in publicly funded jobs.

Which is really quite a lot, when you’ve made cutting back alleged state largesse your central political mission.

Indeed, it’s almost like railing against how big the state is when you’re in opposition and the government has had to take on extra debt to protect the economy from an unprecedented global financial crisis is really easy, while actually cutting back crucial public sector jobs that people rely on for services every day is… kinda hard?

Alternatively, if you wanted to take a much less sympathetic approach: George, you had one job. 

Editor's note: Right, we warned you this was coming. After publication, Chris Giles of the Financial Times said this:

Which was a bit of a downer on the whole.  

We asked Paul Swinney, chief economist for the Centre for Cities, who provides the data, to explain himself. He responded thus:

He added that better data would be nice, but what you gonna do.

So: in these key sectors public employment has risen. Across the piece, not so much.

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This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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