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.

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

 
 
 
 

Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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