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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Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.

Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.