Dutch cities are getting on wonderfully – so why is Geert Wilders set to do so well in the election?

Your local neighbourhood far-right politician now comes with detachable dyed peroxide-blond hair, as if it weren't bad enough already. Image: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

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.

Life in the Netherlands is pretty good. GDP per capita is the fifteenth highest in the world, the national Human Development Index is the fifth highest on the planet, and inequality is the ninth-lowest worldwide.

They’ve conquered the seas with an intricate system of dykes and dams making life in Europe’s toilet boil relatively pleasant, and they’ve got the art of the cycle lane down to a particularly strangely-pronounced tee.

It’s the land of brownie-munching liberal paradise Amsterdam, international legal rights enforcing hub The Hague, and hip-and-happening mega-port Rotterdam.

Even outside of these huge centres, cities in the Netherlands are faring very well – particularly when compared to our own urban blobs here in the UK. Unemployment is lower:

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

Amersfoort has the lowest unemployment level, at just 2.56 per cent, whilst even the city with the highest unemployment rate, Groningen, clocks in only 7.14 per cent.

By contrast, the range in the UK is from 3.31 per cent to 14.06 – almost double.

Similarly, GVA per worker – essentially, how much each individual worker contributes to the economy – is a lot higher in the Netherlands.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

Productivity in the lowest-performing city of Enschede runs at £46,300 – much higher than Britain’s worst figure, Doncaster, at £38,100.

And even the powerhouse that is London – £68,900 – can’t compete with the Netherlands, where Amsterdam comes in at £75,200, and Groningen churns out £80,000 per worker per year.

Dutch cities are more inventive, too. By patent applications to the European Patent Office, the Netherlands’ cities come out ahead of the UK’s:

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

The general range of Dutch cities stretches from just 3.31 patent applications per 100,000 people in Almere, to 19.28 per 100,000 in Arnhem. But then along comes Eindhoven, smashing everyone out of the park with 251.63 per 100,000. It’s not really fair, is it.

Even with the outsize beasts of Oxford and Cambridge included, Britain can’t rise above a piddling 74.05, while the full range of our pathetic pitiful lack of invention stretches down to Telford, with a formidable 0.9 applications per 100,000 people.

On the skill of its workers, too, the Dutch come up ahead.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

Cambridge and Oxford again sit vastly ahead as outliers in the UK, and the proportion of the workforce classed as high-skilled varies, from 18.61 per cent in Hull, to 50.39 per cent in Edinburgh. But once again, though, the Dutch powerhouses roust us – from Haarlemmermeer at 28.49 per cent to Utrecht at 56.66 per cent.

And, on the flip side, it has fewer lower-skilled workers.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

While Dundee registers an astonishing 46.65 per cent of the workforce as low skilled, the Netherlands can’t scrape above 32.9 per cent, in Rotterdam.

So with things this peachy, why is the extremely extreme far-right PVV party of terrible-haired peroxide-blond demon Geert Wilders jostling for first place in the polls – with one eye on becoming Prime Minister of the Netherlands?

Part of the answer, as ever, is that cities function as different political organisms. The gatherings of people in close quarters change the way people think, order priorities differently, and affects their political leanings.

The most Dutch-countryside picture I could find. Image: Peter Hessels.

But that doesn’t explain everything. After all, the PVV is polling around the 20 per cent mark, and between 82 and 85 per cent of people in the Netherlands live in cities.

So even if – as is most certainly not the case – every single person living in the Dutch countryside voted for the PVV, Wilders would still be picking up a fair few votes in urban areas.

Analysis of results and polls from the Netherlands’ last general election in 2012 suggests the clue may be our age-old friend in politics: education, education, education. The more qualified the population, the lower the level of support for the PVV, whether you’re in a city or in the countryside.


Which is why Amsterdam, full of nerdy well-to-do folk, tends not to rush into Geert Wilders’ arms, while a less educated city like Rotterdam does so to a slightly greater extent.

So the solution, long-term, may be a very simple one: whether you’re a city mayor or a rural regional official, get your education, education, education in order. And the rest will, hopefully, sort itself out.

In theory, anyway. 

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“Cities like ours are the reason we voted to leave the EU – and the ones who stand to lose or gain most from Brexit”

Demonstrators outside Parliament protesting the activation of Article 50 today. Image: Getty.

The triggering of Article 50 marks a new and important chapter in our history. We are forging a new relationship with our largest trade partner and untangling four decades of legislation. We also have the task of repairing the tattered fabric of our United Kingdom and healing the sharp divisions in our society.

This task carries particular weight for me. Key Cities, the group of which I’m the chair, represents 26 diverse cities from across the country, with 8.6m people between them; but unlike in most other cities, the clear majority of our residents voted to leave the European Union.

As city leaders, it is our duty to follow their will – whatever our personal politics. It is also our duty to do what we can to protect our communities from economic shock, and to do everything we can to prevent our residents from feeling left behind.

To achieve this, and to heal our divided country, Theresa May needs to take an inclusive approach to negotiation. The devolved administrations, London, and the Core Cities all have a contribution to make. Indeed, local government overall should be included in Brexit negotiations – but specifically cities like ours need their own voice. That is not to ask for a seat at the table in negotiations, but instead a role in scrutinising their outcome.

Cities like ours, plainly speaking, are the reason we voted to leave the EU.  Our communities are the ones who stand to lose or gain the most from Brexit – we have both the potential to seize new opportunities and achieve rapid growth, and the potential to suffer if our great industries, our exporters, and our universities get a raw deal.

We ask the government to recognise that our constituents put their faith in leaving the EU on good terms for Britain, and that Westminster and Whitehall have an obligation to listen to their voices as we embark on this extraordinary project.


We believe that the Prime Minister can take some clear steps now, ahead of negotiations, to ensure a more stable outcome for Britain.

First, the Government should commit to a transitional period after 2019 to allow some more time to negotiate a new trading relationship with the EU. If we rush our exit, our economy, our jobs, and our communities will suffer. If we rush our exit, it could mean our great ports grind to a halt, and queues miles long form at Dover. If we can take time, we can minimise any disruption and adapt more efficiently to new trading arrangements.

Taking time means the Sunderland car factories, the aerospace workers of Preston, and the ports of the south coast can continue their work unimpeded. It’s our view that no deal is the worst option for Britain, so we would urge the government to take the time to get this right, stay at the table, and deliver the best deal for our country.

Second, the government should move to guarantee European structural funds that might be lost as we leave the EU. Crucially, these should be devolved directly to city leaders to avoid replicating the bureaucracy that hindered funds being used efficiently. That will give cities both financial stability and the means to pursue innovation and new opportunity.

Beyond these two steps, the government should make investment in skills its first priority as we move toward Brexit. As so many business and city leaders have said, the skills gap is what is really holding our country back. A successful economy requires excellent education, ranging from primary schools and secondary schools, to technical schools and colleges, and universities – all these institutions deserve guarantees on their funding at this critical time. Brexit of course will be a time consuming process, but we should all keep the real problem, of which Brexit is one major consequence, in mind.

Article 50 is a watershed moment for the country and for our cities. We heard their voices last June, and they should be heard in Brussels when the government sits down at the negotiating table.

Cllr Paul Watson is leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities group of 26 mid-sized cities. 

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