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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The media scumbag’s route of choice: A personal history of London’s C2 bus

A C2 bus at Parliament Hill. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

London’s C2 bus route, which runs from Parliament Hill, by Hampstead Heath, down to Conduit Street, just off Regent Street, is one of the bus routes recently earmarked for the chop. It has oft been noted that, of all the routes recently pencilled in for cancellation after a consultation late last year, it was the one most likely to survive, for the simple reason that it links liberal suburban north London with BBC Broadcasting House and Soho; it’s thus the route most likely to be used by people who can convince someone to let them report on its imminent demise.

So it would come as no surprise that former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger took to the Camden New Journal when the consultation began, arguing that it would be a disservice to the local community to discontinue a route where you can always get a seat – seemingly missing the point that the fact you can always get a seat is not a great sign of the route’s usefulness.

It wasn’t always that way. When I left university in 2000, and moved from accommodation near college to up to a rented shared house in N6, the C2 was my bus. I commuted to Soho for sixteen years: for more than a decade from flats around the Swain’s Lane roundabout, and for five years from Kentish Town. While my place of work bounced around from Golden Square to Lexington Street to Great Marlborough, it was always the most convenient way to get to, and from, work; especially given the difference between bus and tube prices.

So when it comes to the C2 I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and bought the bus pass. And by bus pass, I mean those little paper ones that still existed at the beginning of this century. Not just before contactless, but before Oyster cards.

More importantly, it was before London buses operated a single zone. There was an outer zone, and an inner zone, with different prices. To travel from one zone to another cost £1.30, meaning an all cash commute was £2.60, whereas a paper bus pass was £2.00. That made it worth your while to divert to an early opening newsagents on your way to the bus stop (GK, in my case), even if you only got two buses a day.

It’s a measure of how greatly London’s buses have improved over the last twenty years, since first brought under control of the mayoralty, that pretty much everything about this anecdotage, including the prices, seems faintly mad. But there’s more: back when I started getting that bus down to Stop N, literally at the very end of the route, the C2 used single decker buses with a single door. It’s an appalling design for use in a crowded city, which meant most of any journey was, for most passengers, spent fighting your way up and down the middle of the bus to find a seat, and then back again to get off; or – and this was more likely – fighting your way up the bus to get into standing space the driver insisted was there, before fighting your way, etc.

Such buses – and in my former life in the English Midlands I went to school on one of these buses every day – are perfectly functional where bus stops are infrequent and buses rarely standing room only. But running through Camden Town at rush hour, they’re wholly unfit for purpose.

A Citypacer. Image: RXUYDC/Wikimedia Commons.

It could have been worse. I didn’t know this at the time, but a few years before the C2 route had been run using Optare City Pacers. Those are, let us be frank, not really buses at all, but minibuses. That’s something the reveals the C2’s origins, as a hopper route to the west end largely intended for the daytime use of Gospel Oak’s pensioners in the years immediately before bus privatisation. (The C11 has a similar origin, taking the same constituency from Archway to England’s Lane.)

Once responsibility for London Buses was moved to the newly established mayoralty, things improved dramatically. Under Ken Livingstone it went double decker in 2005, and 24 hour in 2007. Under Boris Johnson it was extended from its once, and future, terminus of Conduit Street to Victoria Station, swallowing up the cancelled sections of the 8 bus; this extension was quietly disposed of a few years later, once it was clear no one would notice. (I did.)


In those years I must have taken a C2 the best part of ten thousand times; but for all the years when I wouldn’t have been able to live without the C2, times have reduced its utility, and not just for me. I’m now a 214 sort of guy: these days the top chunk of the C2 route is duplicated exactly by that other bus, which starts up in Highgate Village and, once it gets to Swain’s Lane, follows the same path until the fork of Kentish Town Road and Royal College Street, opposite the long defunct South Kentish Town tube station.

From a few hundred metres below that point, at Camden Gardens, stop C, the 88 starts. That duplicates the rest of the C2’s route, with the exception of the run down Albany Street and onto Great Portland, for much of which the C2 is the only bus.

So the C2, old friend that it is, is pretty redundant in the age of the hopper fare, which allows you to change buses without paying a second fare. That’s even more true now the C2’s otherwise un-serviced stops are being giving over to a re-routed 88, which will pick up the C2’s most northern leg, by not finishing at Camden Gardens anymore and instead going all the way to Parliament Hill Fields. Which will be nice for it.

All this, however, ignores the best reason for getting rid of the C2 (or rather for merging it with the 88, which is what’s actually happening): that first character. The letter. Who wants a bus route with a letter in front of it when even half the night buses don’t have the N anymore? It’s relic of the route’s aforementioned origins as a ‘Camdenhopper’.

That C is twenty five years past its own utility. It’s just untidy. City Metric hates that sort of thing. Get rid.