Since 1998, a major northern city has grown almost as fast as London – and it’s not the one you think

Oooh, a clue. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

One of the joys of this column is when I stumble onto something genuinely surprising. I’ve spent so long trying to come up with variations on the phrase “Well I never, it’s the north-south divide again!” that on those rare occasions when I find something weird, I am suffused with a genuine sense of delight.

Anyway, here’s the skinny. This week, I decided to look at how the economies of Britain’s major cities – London, Edinburgh and the 10 Core Cities – have grown over the last couple of decades. The Centre for Cities’ data on Gross Value Add - essentially, how much economic value is being created in each city, in pounds sterling – comes from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and goes back to 1998.

Direct comparisons between the cities would make trends difficult to spot: the data isn’t per head, so simply by virtue of being so much bigger London would dwarf all the others and render trends impossible to see. To fix that, I’ve expressed the size of each city’s economy as a multiple of its 1998 value: when a city crosses the line labelled “2”, its economy is now double the size it was in 1998.

So, here’s the chart. You may wish to expand it to look at the key.

Click to expand.

The least surprising thing here is that London tops the charts, even on this relative growth measure. Since 1998, the capital has boomed, in terms of both economics and population (the two may be connected). By 2016, its economy was worth more than 2.3 times the amount it was worth just 18 years earlier. That’s equivalent – assuming I haven’t cocked up the maths – to an average annual growth rate of about 4.8 per cent, which is really not to be sniffed at.

The next two on the list probably aren’t that surprising either. Edinburgh is a rich city and a regional financial centre; Cardiff an increasingly important media hub. More importantly, both became government centres in 1999, as the new devolved Scottish and Welsh administrations moved in. Little wonder that this has brought economy benefits. Look at the left hand side of the graph, indeed, and you can see that Cardiff was, for a while, the fastest growing major city in Britain.


Beyond that, though, things start getting counter-intuitive. Because the next fastest growing major city economy in the years since 1998 turns out to be... Liverpool.

This doesn’t really fit the narrative, does it? When we talk about rebalancing England’s economy away from London, it tends to be Manchester that comes to mind – or, at a push, Birmingham. But the latter turns out to have been one of the slowest expanding city economies since 1998, with an average annual growth rate of just 3 per cent (only Nottingham has been slower, and then only slightly). Manchester fares better, but it’s still only mid-table, at 3.7 per cent.

The true Northern Powerhouse since 1998 has been Liverpool. With an average annual growth rate of 4.2 per cent, it’s one of only five of the 12 cities to have doubled the size of its economy since 1998, passing that mark by 2015. Between 1998 and 2009-10, in fact, it was the fastest growing major city in the UK. Then there was the slight matter of the crash and the austerity which followed, but even then it’s bounced back.

This data raises a number of questions to which I simply don’t have the answer. What drove Liverpool’s relatively stellar performance? And why did nobody notice it? By the same token, what went wrong in Birmingham? Have I just mucked up the data? If you have any thoughts, please do let me know.

I’m also aware that these numbers start at a faintly arbitrary point, and that if we started the clock in another year things might look different. So, next time in this slot, I’m going to look at the same data, but this time starting at the crash. Bet you can’t wait.

You can explore the full Centre for Cities dataset here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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Here are eight thoughts on TfL’s proposed cuts to London’s bus network

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

In 2016, the urbanism blog City Observatory had a modest proposal for how American cities could sort out their transport systems: “Londonize”.

Its theory, the name of which referenced another popular urbanism blog, Copenhagenize, was that the key plank of Transport for London’s success was something that even transport nerds did not consider very sexy: its buses.

Though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3bn passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3bn), close to the New York City subway (2.8bn), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1bn), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

How has TfL done this? By making its bus network high frequency, reliable, relatively easy to understand and comprehensive. We rarely talk about this, because the tube map is far more fun – but the reason it’s so difficult to fall off the transport network in Greater London is because you’re never that far from a bus.

Given all that, we should probably talk about TfL’s plans to rethink – and in most cases, cut – as many as 36 different central London bus services over the next few months.

I’m not going to rehash details of the changes on which TfL is consulting from next month: there are just too many of them, and anyway it’s someone else’s scoop. The story was originally broken by Darryl Chamberlain over on 853 London; there’s also some fascinating analysis on Diamond Geezer’s blog. You should read both of those stories, though preferably not before you’ve finished reading this one.

Before offering my own analysis of the proposed changes, though, I should offer a few examples. More than a dozen routes are facing a trim: the 59 from King’s Cross back to Euston, the 113 from Oxford Circle to Marble Arch, the 171 from Holborn all the way down to Elephant & Castle and so on. A couple – the 10, the 48, the C2, and at most times the special routemaster version of the 15 – are being withdrawn altogether.

On, and one new route is planned – the 311, from Fulham Broadway to Oxford Circus. This will help plug some of the cuts to the 11, 19 and 22.

So, what does all this mean? Some thoughts:

1) This might not quite be as awful as it initially sounds

TfL says that demand for buses has fallen by around 10 per cent in London in recent years. It predicts it’ll fall further when Crossrail opens, as passengers switch to the new line, or to the tube routes relieved by the new line. So: the idea of taking some unwanted capacity out of the system is not, in itself, terrible.

Striping out unnecessary buses should also improve air quality in some of London’s worst pollution hot spots, and improve traffic flow, hopefully speeding up journeys on those buses that remain. 

A map from the presentation in which TfL explained its plans, showing the reduction in bus numbers on key arteries. Hilariously, notes Darryl Chamberlain, “It no longer produces its own maps, so has had to use one prepared by a bus enthusiast”.

The plans might even free up buses and staff to increase frequencies in outer London where demand hasn’t fallen – though these plans won’t be unveiled until next year and, for reasons I’ll come to below, I’ll believe it when we see it.

2) For many bus users, a lot of these changes will pass almost unnoticed

By my count, I use nine of the affected routes with any regularity – but only three of the changes are things that I’m likely to be at all inconvenienced by. Most of the changes either affect a part of the route I don’t take, or one where there are easy, and pain free alternatives.

This is anecdotal, obviously – perhaps I’m just lucky. But my suspicion is that a lot of these changes will go unnoticed by most passengers. It’s only the sheer number of them happening at once that makes this look like a big deal.

3) The Hopper fare makes this easier...

Once upon a time, if you had to switch buses, you had to pay a second fare. This isn’t true of journeys on the tube or railways – and since bus passengers have, on average, less money than tube passengers, it amounted to a pretty unfair tax on poorer Londoners.

But in January, in what is probably his most notable policy achievement of his two years in office so far, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan changed the rules. Now you can take as many buses as you want within an hour, for a single fare: that means you can switch buses without paying a penalty.

That will have made it easier for TfL to cut routes back: replacing a direct bus journey with one that requires a change no longer means imposing a financial penalty on passengers.


4) ...but not that easy

That’s about where the good news stops, though – because there are reasons other than cost why people prefer direct bus routes. Needing to change buses will be difficult for anyone with any form of mobility impairment, for example. Even for those of us lucky enough not to fall into that category, it’ll be annoying: it’s just easier to stay in one seat for 40 minutes than to get turfed off and have to fight for a new one halfway through.

More than that, from the passengers’ point of view, excess capacity feels quite good a lot of the time: it means your bus may well be nice and empty. Reducing the number of buses along those key corridors will also make those that remain more crowded.

5) The motive is almost certainly financial

Another of Sadiq Khan’s big policy promises was to freeze fares. He made this promise at a time when central government is massively reducing the financial support it gives TfL (the work, Chamberlain notes, of Evening Standard editor George Osborne, back when he was chancellor). And the Hopper fare, while a great idea in many ways, means a further reduction in income.

So: TfL is scrambling for cash: this is why I remain cynical about those new outer London bus routes. I would be amazed if money wasn’t a motivation here, not least because...

6) TfL thinks no one will notice

Any attempt to reduce tube frequencies, let alone close a station, would result in uproar. Hashtag campaigners! Angry people pointing at things in local newspapers! Damning reports on the front of the Evening Standard from the bloke who made it happen!

Buses, though? Their routes change, slightly, all the time. And do you really notice whether your local route comes every 10 minutes or every 12? That’s not to mention the fact that bus passengers, as previously noted, tend to be poorer – and so, less vocal – than tube passengers.

So cuts, and the savings they bring, are much easier to sneak through. TfL probably would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling bloggers.

Although...

7) Scrapping the C2 might be a mistake

The C2 runs from Parliament Hill, through Kentish Town and Camden to Oxford Circus. In other words, it links north London, where a lot of journalists live, to the offices of the BBC and Buzzfeed.

As occasional New Statesman writer James Ball notes, this is probably not the easiest route to quietly shelve.

8) None of this is set in stone

The consultation doesn’t even begin until next month and then will run for six weeks – so all these plans may yet be forgotten. We shall see.

Anyway – here’s Darryl Chamberlain’s original scoop, and here’s some detailed analysis on Diamond Geezer. Please support your local bloggers by reading them.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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