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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So how could Northern Ireland spend £400m on new infrastructure?

Great Victoria Street station, Belfast. Image: Milepost98/Wikipedia.

Last year’s confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative party and the DUP saw 40 per cent of the Northern Irish party’s £1bn price tag allocated to infrastructure. Although there is, at the time of writing, no functioning government in the North to spend it, where could £400m be best used?

Northern Ireland is not, geographically, a large place. The six counties are inhabited by under 2m people and, to use a comparative metric that anyone who has sat in a high school geography lesson may remember, the North is less than half the size of Belgium. Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s two major urban centres, are only a 70 mile drive apart. On the face of it then, an injection of cash into infrastructure should be relatively straightforward.

Yet the Belfast Rapid Transit system is the only notable public transport infrastructure currently being developed in the North. That takes the form of a web of connected bus lanes, as well as investment in a new bus fleet for use in them, that aims to cut car use in the heavily congested city.

One way to spend the money might be to tame the Irish Sea. Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson claimed back in January a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland was “feasible” and would be a “much needed alternative” to the current ferry route. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t the first to notice that Northern Ireland’s east coast is only 20 miles from Scotland.

But while some MPs dream of bridges across the sea, interest in more useful infrastructure is less forthcoming. Take the NI Railways service, which despite the name only covers a fraction of the North. A simple glance over a map shows how fractured coverage is.

Even where the trains do run, the service is hardly efficient. The Belfast-Derry journey takes over two hours, which doesn’t compare well with the current London-Birmingham fast service, which covers almost twice the distance in 1hr22. Belfast City Airport, which last year handled 2.5m passengers, is serviced by Sydenham Station – but only via shuttle bus, which you have to request, or via the verge of the A2.

Meanwhile there is no train at all to Belfast International Airport: instead, an expensive taxi or a bus through the Northern Irish countryside is required. It may be scenic, but it isn’t good infrastructure.

That said, NI Rail saw 14.2m  passenger journeys last year, compared to 11.5m in 2012-13: the problem isn’t that there is no demand for infrastructure, simply that no one has bothered to build it.

It is a similar story with roads. Belfast and Derry are only a 70 miles apart, yet there isn’t a direct, or even indirect, motorway link between the two. In fact, there are only 60 miles of motorway in the entire North: all are in the east, almost exclusively focused on Belfast.

Northern Ireland is, of course, not the only part of the UK poorly supplied when it comes to transport. Anyone reading this who lives in the North East of England or who relies of commuters trains around Manchester, for example, will have experienced similar problem. So what makes Northern Ireland special?

Well: for a relatively small geographical area, there is a striking polarisation in the provision of transport. Not only is there an overall lack of infrastructure, but what does exist is overwhelmingly concentrated in the east. To take one instructive statistic, 51 of Northern Ireland’s railway stations are located east of the River Bann, the traditional dividing line between east and west.

This divide isn’t an accident: rather, it’s a legacy of the North’s sectarian history. The east has been traditionally unionist, the west nationalist, and there has been a strong bias in economic power and investment towards the former. As analysis from Northern Irish regeneration advisor Steve Bradley shows, the main rail and road networks are almost exclusively confined to areas where Protestant are more common than Catholics, and where the DUP holds political power.

So, if the North does come under direct rule from Westminster, there are some fairly obvious gaps in the transport network that could do with being filled – based on the needs of citizens, rather than their background or voting preference. But with the open question of the Irish border hanging over us – something which brings implications for cross-border travel along with everything else – the chances of that appear slim.