British cities are falling behind their European competitors – so what do we do?

Just one of the many European cities eating Britain's lunch. Image: Getty.

As is now well established, the UK’s urban areas play a critical role in the UK economy. But until now, little has been known about how the UK compares to other countries in this respect, and how individual UK cities compete against European counterparts.

The Centre for Cities' new report Competing with the Continent presents an in-depth picture of how UK city economies compare to 330 European cities from across 17 countries. It reveals a number of important findings which should be a key consideration for the government as it seeks to create an economy that works for all, at a time when the UK is set to leave the EU.

Here are four key takeaways:

1. UK cities play a bigger role in the national economy than in other countries

The UK is the most urbanised economy in Europe: its cities generate 60 per cent of the country’s GVA (gross valued added).

In comparison, Spanish cities make up just 45 per cent of their national GVA, German cities 36 per cent, and Italian cities just 32 per cent. (See the full breakdown here).

2. UK cities also make the biggest contribution to the European economy

In total, UK cities represent 21 per cent of Europe’s urban economic output, the largest share of any nation. As a comparison, German cities represent 19 per cent of urban Europe GVA and French cities 18 per cent (the full breakdown is here).

In addition, London is the largest economy in Europe, with a GVA of £340bn. The chart below gives a list of all the cities in the report by GVA – London, Manchester and Birmingham all make the top 20:

3. Yet UK cities are lagging behind in terms of productivity

Despite the UK economy being so dependent on its cities, too many of them fall behind their continental competitors on productivity.

Nine out of 10 UK cities (57 out of 63) perform below the European city average, and more than half are among the 25 per cent least productive cities in the continent.

The map below gives a quick breakdown of the UK’s productivity problem – a couple of cities in the South East do very well, but many others are lagging behind (more detail on this here).

4. Poor skills levels are likely to be the biggest cause of low productivity.

UK cities are home to the third largest concentration of low-skilled residents in the continent, behind only Spanish and Polish cities.

Only six UK cities have a lower proportion of low-skilled residents than the European average. Three out of four UK cities also have a lower proportion of high-skilled residents than the European average, although nationally the proportion of high-skilled residents is high.

So what do we do?

These findings raise serious questions about how Theresa May can go about achieving her ambition of spreading prosperity to all parts of the country, raising wages for residents of all cities, and ensuring UK cities are able to attract investment and trade on the international scene.

Given the country’s economic structure and the growing strength of its services sector, it is clear that cities must attract more knowledge-intensive firms and jobs in order to compete in the years to come. To do so, cities must also provide the highly-qualified workforce which these types of firms require – and that will require a long term commitment to improve educational attainment and skills levels across the country.

Finally, policymakers should focus on making the most of big cities, which largely lag behind compared to their counterparts. If these cities are firing on all cylinders, they could provide opportunities for individuals living far beyond their administrative boundaries.

You can read about these findings in more detail here. Or you can head to our European Cities Data Tool to explore all our data on the 330 cities covered in the report.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.


The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.

Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  


A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.