Britain's city economies are “critically dependent” on the EU market for their exports

Then prime minister David Cameron visits Hull, the least EU-exports dependent city in Britain. Image: Getty.

Last June, in case you’ve been in a coma for seven months, Britain voted to leave the European Union. The maps of the results look liked no political map of Britain you’d ever seen, with both safe Tory and safe Labour areas lining up on either side.

But one pattern was pretty clear: cities are less Eurosceptic than their hinterlands. Not all of them, and sometimes not by enough for Remain to get over 50 – but for the most part, Britain’s cities are more pro-European than the areas around them.

Click to expand. Image: CityMetric.

This has generally been credited to cultural factors: cities are more diverse, cosmopolitan and so on. But research out from the Centre for Cities today suggests that hard-nosed economics might be a factor here, too. Of the 62 significant British cities for which it holds data, all but one count the EU as its biggest export market: bigger than the US, much, much bigger than developing economies such as China or India. 

In fact, two-thirds of the cities surveyed (41, out of 62) send more than half their exports to the EU. Even the city where the share of exports to the EU is lowest – Derby, since you ask – sends a quarter. Obviously exports do not make up a city’s entire economy (all too often, in fact, they make up rather less than we might like). Nonetheless, these figures clearly suggest that losing access to the European market would be A Bad Thing for Britain’s urban economies.

This data comes from the Cities Outlook 2017 report. Published annually, Cities Outlook has historically looked at all sorts of different aspects of city economies. This being 2017, however, the only issue on the table in British politics right now is Brexit and its impact on international trade, so the headlines of the report focus on that. (Were I feeling more cynical, I’d suggest that the same is likely to be true of the 2018 report, too. And the 2019 one. And 2020. And-)

The data in the report clearly suggest that any version of Brexit which impeded trade between Britain and the continent would damage Britain’s city economies, by restricting access to their largest market. But which cities would it damage most? Here are the 10 cities that are proportionally most reliant on trade with Europe:

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

It’s a fairly motley crew, mixing big cities like Bristol and Nottingham with small ones like Plymouth and Warrington. They’re a mixed bag economically, too, with rich Aberdeen in the same list as struggling Sunderland.


There’s no regional pattern either, or at least no easily explicable one: three of the 10 are in the south west (Exeter, Plymouth, Bristol) and two in south Wales (Cardiff, Swansea), but precisely none are in the south east, which is the region geographically closest to Europe.

One possible explanation for this is that the cities of that prosperous region are more successful exporting to other places (helped along by the convenience of a couple of major airports and so forth). That would mean that their trade with the EU could be high in absolute terms, but low in proportional ones.

Except there are only two south eastern cities in the bottom 10 (Reading and Ipswich) which doesn’t seem like great support for that theory:

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

Once again, they are, literally, all over the map: Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland; Telford, Coventry and Derby in the industrial Midlands, and so forth. 

The single city for which the EU is not its primary export market (I’m sure you’ve been wondering about that) is Hull. It still sends nearly a third of its exports to the EU (29 per cent; more than Derby). But thanks largely to its pharmaceutical industries, its main trading partner is the US.

In all, nearly half of the exports from British cities go to the EU – 46 per cent, which the report notes is

three times more than exports to the US, the second biggest market... and five times more than exports to India, Japan, Russia, South America and South Korea combined”. 

All of which means that it’s no good banging on about the benefits of trade with BRICs and tiger economies and so on. Those may one day grow to make up a bigger share of Britain’s export markets – but both history and geography mean that, for the foreseeable future, any sensible trade policy would prioritise access to the European market.

Which, sadly, we’re not likely to do. In a quote accompanying the research, the CfC’s chief executive Alex Jones says:

“Securing the best possible EU trade deal will be critical for the prosperity of cities across Britain, and should be the government’s top priority as we prepare to leave the single market and potentially the customs union. While it’s right to be ambitious about increasing exports to countries l such as the US and china, the outcome of EU trade negotiations will have a much bigger impact on places and people up and down the country.”

Which looks a lot like a diplomatic and apolitical way of saying: Bugger this up, minister, and it is really going to hurt.

Referencing the fact that different cities are exporting from radically different industries, Jones goes on to say:

“It’s also important that the government aims to reach trade agreements covering as many sectors as possible, rather than prioritising deals for high-profile industries based in a small number of places. Broad trade agreements for all goods and services will help every city to build on its exporting strengths.”

There is, of course, a way of maximising business’ abilities to export to Europe, in a broad range of sectors, that doesn’t involve picking winners. It’s called the European Single Market.

Still, never mind, I’m sure Exeter will be able to plug that 70 per cent fall in its exports in no time.

You can read the full Cities Outlook report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.