Aberdeen’s slowdown shows the dangers of being a one-industry town

Another sunny day over Aberdeen. Image: Getty.

Aberdeen has long been one of the UK’s most economically buoyant cities. In the 11 years that  Centre for Cities has published Cities Outlook – our annual health-check on UK city economies – Aberdeen has ranked among the best performing cities when it comes to wages, skill-levels and innovation.

This year’s Cities Outlook shows that Aberdeen continues to be a strong performer, with impressive figures for number of skilled workers, patent applications published and average wages. However, the downturn in the city’s standing in a number of key areas in recent years suggests that all may not be well in the Granite City’s economy.

There are five different indicators that show that Aberdeen’s economy has struggled in the last few years:

  • In terms of population, Aberdeen is the only city in the UK to see a decline in its number of residents between 2015 and 2016 – a fall of 0.3 per cent. This was driven by a sharp decline in those aged 20-24.
  • Business closures per capita have increased by 76 per cent, while business start-up rates have decreased by 21 per cent per cent between 2013 and 2016.
  • The employment rate was 2.7 percentage points lower in 2016 than in 2014.
  • Gross value added data shows that the economy was 7 per cent smaller in 2016 than 2014. As this isn’t adjusted for inflation, the real terms fall will have been even larger.
  • House prices have fallen by 9 per cent since 2015.

While local data is not detailed enough to say conclusively, Aberdeen’s economy appears to have been in recession in recent years. And this is counter to the experiences of other UK cities. While Aberdeen’s reliance on oil and gas appeared to shelter the city from the worst of the global financial crisis, the oil sector’s recent turbulence has pulled the city into reverse at a time when other cities have been slowly improving.

When we consider these findings in light of research published last July by Centre for Cities and the Centre for Economic Performance – which suggested that Aberdeen’s economy would be hit harder than that of any other city by either a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit – It all adds up to a worrying picture.

So what’s going on? Much of this is likely to be down to Aberdeen’s dependence on the oil industry, which has hitherto been the source of the city’s economic success. However, in recent years there has been a well-publicised global slump in oil prices, with prices dropping from a peak of $115 per barrel in June 2014 to a low of $26 per barrel in January 2016. Prices have increased more recently, but remain around $50 below their 2014 peak.


This large reliance on a particular sector in Aberdeen draws out three wider policy lessons which have implications in particular for the Government’s Industrial Strategy, and the local industrial strategies that places will develop as part of this initiative:

Having a diverse economic base will help cushion cities against changes in the fortunes of specific industries

Reliance on an individual sector means that your fortunes are hooked on the performance of that sector. And this is something that has been seen throughout the last century – a number of cities have struggled after they’ve seen a decline of a dominant industry, be that steel in Sheffield (which accounted for 24 per cent in 1911), mining in Wakefield (which provided one in three jobs in 1911) or textiles in Burnley (which accounted for over half of all jobs in 1911).

While cities tend to be much more diversified today than they did 100 years ago, cities such as Sunderland (Nissan) and Derby (Rolls Royce) continue to be reliant on individual businesses to generate a large bulk of their exports. Diversifying their economies now by attracting in a broader range of business investment would help offset any future troubles that these businesses may face.

A local industrial strategy should have a place-based approach rather than sectoral approach

Despite the risks that an over-reliance on a small number of industries poses for places, the government’s Industrial Strategy has a strong sectoral dimension to it. The worry here is that will encourage cities to focus their local industrial strategies on what they perceive to be their sector strengths, rather than setting out a plan to attract in business investment from a range of sources. To do this requires an understanding of what the barriers that a city faces to attracting business investment are, and a set of coherent policies to overcome this.

Aberdeen’s recent City Deal very much focused on oil and gas, with three quarters of the £250m deal dedicated to establishment of Oil & Gas Technology Centre (which opened in February 2017). This is likely to be a great asset for the city while the sector is located in the city – but it does little to help it broaden the activities based there.

Encouraging diversity isn’t only the responsibility of the public sector, and the private sector has a role to play

Aberdeen’s over reliance on oil and gas led to the creation in 2015 of Opportunity North East (ONE), a private sector economic development body established with the aim of diversifying the local economy.

While ONE’s identification of a handful of sectors (food, drink and agriculture, life sciences, tourism) runs the risk of being too focused on sectors and not the drivers of business investment, the formation of this organisation reflects that fact that it’s not just the job of the public sector to help places adapt to on-going change – and that private sector will also have an important role to play. The local industrial strategies should define exactly what that role is.

Sania Haider was an intern at Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.