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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Here’s why we’re using a car wash to drill into the world’s highest glacier on Everest

Everest. Image: Getty.

For nearly 100 years, Mount Everest has been a source of fascination for explorers and researchers alike. While the former have been determined to conquer “goddess mother of the world” – as it is known in Tibet – the latter have worked to uncover the secrets that lie beneath its surface.

Our research team is no different. We are the first group trying to develop understanding of the glaciers on the flanks of Everest by drilling deep into their interior.

We are particularly interested in Khumbu Glacier, the highest glacier in the world and one of the largest in the region. Its source is the Western Cwm of Mount Everest, and the glacier flows down the mountain’s southern flanks, from an elevation of around 7,000 metres down to 4,900 metres above sea level at its terminus (the “end”).

Though we know a lot about its surface, at present we know just about nothing about the inside of Khumbu. Nothing is known about the temperature of the ice deeper than around 20 metres beneath the surface, for example, nor about how the ice moves (“deforms”) at depth.

Khumbu is covered with a debris layer (which varies in thickness by up to four metres) that affects how the surface melts, and produces a complex topography hosting large ponds and steep ice cliffs. Satellite observations have helped us to understand the surface of high-elevation debris-covered glaciers like Khumbu, but the difficult terrain makes it very hard to investigate anything below that surface. Yet this is where the processes of glacier movement originate.

Satellite image of Khumbu glacier in September 2013. Image: NASA.

Scientists have done plenty of ice drilling in the past, notably into the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. However this is a very different kind of investigation. The glaciers of the Himalayas and Andes are physically distinctive, and supply water to millions of people. It is important to learn from Greenland and Antarctica, – where we are finding out how melting ice sheets will contribute to rising sea levels, for example – but there we are answering different questions that relate to things such as rapid ice motion and the disintegration of floating ice shelves. With the glaciers we are still working on obtaining fairly basic information which has the capacity to make substantial improvements to model accuracy, and our understanding of how these glaciers are being, and will be, affected by climate change.

Under pressure

So how does one break into a glacier? To drill a hole into rock you break it up mechanically. But because ice has a far lower melting point, it is possible to melt boreholes through it. To do this, we use hot, pressurised water.

Conveniently, there is a pre-existing assembly to supply hot water under pressure – in car washes. We’ve been using these for over two decades now to drill into ice, but our latest collaboration with manufacturer Kärcher – which we are now testing at Khumbu – involves a few minor alterations to enable sufficient hot water to be pressurised for drilling higher (up to 6,000 metres above sea level is envisioned) and possibly deeper than before. Indeed, we are very pleased to reveal that our recent fieldwork at Khumbu has resulted in a borehole being drilled to a depth of about 190 metres below the surface.

Drilling into the glacier. Image: author provided.

Even without installing experiments, just drilling the borehole tells us something about the glacier. For example, if the water jet progresses smoothly to its base then we know the ice is uniform and largely debris-free. If drilling is interrupted, then we have hit an obstacle – likely rocks being transported within the ice. In 2017, we hit a layer like this some 12 times at one particular location and eventually had to give up drilling at that site. Yet this spatially-extensive blockage usefully revealed that the site was carrying a thick layer of debris deep within the ice.

Once the hole has been opened up, we take a video image – using an optical televiewer adapted from oil industry use by Robertson Geologging – of its interior to investigate the glacier’s internal structure. We then install various probes that provide data for several months to years. These include ice temperature, internal deformation, water presence measurements, and ice-bed contact pressure.


All of this information is crucial to determine and model how these kinds of glaciers move and melt. Recent studies have found that the melt rate and water contribution of high-elevation glaciers are currently increasing, because atmospheric warming is even stronger in mountain regions. However, a threshold will be reached where there is too little glacial mass remaining, and the glacial contribution to rivers will decrease rapidly – possibly within the next few decades for a large number of glaciers. This is particularly significant in the Himalayas because meltwater from glaciers such as Khumbu contributes to rivers such as the Brahmaputra and the Ganges, which provide water to billions of people in the foothills of the Himalaya.

Once we have all the temperature and tilt data, we will be able to tell how fast, and the processes by which, the glacier is moving. Then we can feed this information into state-of-the-art computer models of glacier behaviour to predict more accurately how these societally critical glaciers will respond as air temperatures continue to rise.

The ConversationThis is a big and difficult issue to address and it will take time. Even once drilled and imaged, our borehole experiments take several months to settle and run. However, we are confident that these data, when available, will change how the world sees its highest glacier.

Katie Miles, PhD Researcher, Aberystwyth University and Bryn Hubbard, Professor of Glaciology, Aberystwyth University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.