Britain’s secondary cities are underperforming their European peers

Glasgow. 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. 

The reasons why a slim majority of the British people voted for Brexit back in June 2016 are many and varied. But one of them, I think, was a vague sense that the British economy was somehow being held back through its links to Europe – that we were, in the charmingly offensive phrase of Daniel Hannan MEP, “shacked to a corpse”.

This argument was nonsense on several levels: the Eurozone economy is now outperforming the British one; severing links with our largest trading partners is highly unlikely to put rocket boosters under the national economy. But there’s a bigger, more fundamental reason I’m not buying it: compared to those of most European countries, the British economy really isn’t that great.

To demonstrate this, we have to look beyond national averages, and drill down into the performance of individual cities. Below is a chart showing productivity rates in the capitals of the five largest western European countries: basically, how much wealth the average worker generates in a year.

(Some technical stuff, for those who wish to know. The data comes from the Centre for Cities’ Competing With the Continent database, which collated it from a variety of sources. The measure used is Gross Value Add (GVA) per worker, adjusted for purchasing power parities and expressed in pound sterling. The data is from 2011. More on methodology here if you need it.)

Anyway, here’s the chart:

There are no huge surprises here, I’d guess. Parisians are a fair bit more productive than Londoners, Romans a little less, Madrileños a chunk less than that. Germany may be the biggest economy in the EU, but its capital – surrounded as it is by what was East Germany – still cheerfully describes itself as, “Poor but sexy”.

Here’s the thing, though: capitals are not always representative of the countries they sit in. And London is by far the richest major British city. So what happens if we compare these five countries’ secondary cities?

First, we need to define our cities. For the purposes of keeping the data manageable here, I’m restricting myself to the five biggest European countries (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain). I’m also only looking at urban areas whose populations Demographia puts at higher than 1m.

This presents us with a very slight problem: Demographia and the Centre for Cities define cities differently, and some of the “urban areas” listed by the former are counted as two or more different cities by the latter. Where that’s happened, in the name of simplicity, I’ve replaced the urban area with its dominant part: so Leeds instead of West Yorkshire, Birmingham instead of the West Midlands, Dortmund instead of the Ruhr.

That gives us a list of 19 cities to play with. Here they are with the population of their urban areas:

  • Dortmund (Ruhr), Germany – 6,670,000
  • Milan, Italy – 5,280,000
  • Barcelona, Spain – 4,790,000
  • Naples, Italy – 3,700,000
  • Manchester, UK – 2,685,000
  • Birmingham (West Midlands), UK – 2,550,000
  • Cologne (inc. Bonn etc.), Germany – 2,165,000
  • Hamburg, Germany – 2,105,000
  • Munich, Germany – 2,025,000
  • Leeds (West Yorkshire), UK – 1,955,000
  • Frankfurt, Germany – 1,950,000
  • Lyon, France – 1,650,000
  • Marseille, France – 1,620,000
  • Valencia, Spain – 1,585,000
  • Turin, Italy – 1,530,000
  • Stuttgart, Germany – 1,395,000
  • Glasgow, UK – 1,235,000
  • Sevilla, Spain – 1,110,000
  • Lille, France – 1,065,000

Here’s the same data as used in the chart above – GVA per worker, and so forth – for these 19 secondary cities. Once again, I’ve sorted them by size, and coloured the bars by country. See if you can spot any patterns.

You see the problem? The secondary British cities are much less productive than their continental peers, ranking lower than every other city in the chart except Naples. For all the talk of lazy southern Europeans that accompanied the Eurozone crisis, the cities of Mediterranean Europe are performing significantly better than those of northern England or western Scotland.

And the four British conurbations listed here contain just over 8m people between them, not many fewer than London. But where the capital is holding its own compared to its peers, the other big British cities are falling way, way behind. Even if London’s economy gives Britain an advantage, which is by no means certain, than it’s erased by the weak performance elsewhere.


Why this might be happening is an interesting and complex question, and in days to come I’m going to be trawling the data to find out. What is already clear, though, is that the gap on show here must shoulder a hefty blame for the state of the British economy. The problem is not that Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow are not as productive as London: it’s that they’re not as productive as Marseille, Barcelona or Cologne.

I’ll be coming back to this topic shortly. But in the mean time, why not have a play with the Centre for Cities “Competing with the Continent” database?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.