British cities have weak governance, limited public transport – and terrible productivity. Coincidence?

A gratuitous picture of the Wuppertal Suspension Railway in the Ruhr. Image: Mbdortmund/Wikipedia.

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. 

Last week, over at the good ship New Statesman, I wrote about my irritation with the widespread habit among journalists of explaining everything that ever happens in terms of whatever it is they spend their lives writing about. It’s lucky I have no fear of hypocrisy, then, because I’m about to do exactly that.

For the last few weeks I’ve been trawling Centre for Cities data in an attempt to explain a mystery: why are the big British cities outside London so much less productive than cities of similar size and stature elsewhere in Europe?

Click to expand.

Digging through the numbers, I found that less productive cities have a few things in common: smaller services sectors; lower numbers of businesses; fewer patents registered; a lot of unskilled workers. Which way the causality runs is not always clear – a lot of those things could be the result of talented people leaving, to work in more productive cities where career options are wider and wages are higher. Nonetheless, it’s clear that, whether symptom or cause, there are certain characteristics that struggling cities tend to share.

Reading up on the various cities, though, I started to wonder if there might actually be other ways in which the four British ones were unlike their European peers – ways which aren’t captured by this dataset. Here are three.

1) The other countries I looked at all have regional governments

France has regions and, more recently, metropoles (collections of councils, covering entire metropolitan regions). Italy has provinces, Spain has autonomous communities and Germany has states. (Hamburg, indeed, is a state in its own right.)

In England, though, for most of recent history there’s been no administrative layer between local councils and national government. (The three Celtic nations have at least had their own administrations since 1999.) There has thus been no layer of government whose job it is to think about the needs of specific metropolitan regions.

This is, gradually, changing: Birmingham and Manchester now sit at the heart of their own city regions. But there’s still nothing on offer in Leeds, and no democratic body tasked with planning for the needs of greater Glasgow. (The closest is the Scottish Government, but that’s up the road in Edinburgh and responsible for a much, much bigger region.)


2) Mayors are standard on the continent

...but not in Britain, where the council & leader model has historically held sway. So while there are individual politicians whose job it is to speak up for Milan or Marseille or Munich, British cities have had no such representatives.

Again, this is changing: some councils are now led by directly-elected mayors; some city regions now elect metro mayors. There are individuals whose job it is to stand up to central government for the needs of Greater Manchester or greater Birmingham (Andys Burnham and Street, respectively).

This, though, is a very recent phenomenon – and once again, Leeds and Glasgow are still out in the cold.

3) Continental cities have public transport

I looked at 15 continental cities in this exercise. All but one, Hamburg, have tram networks. As far as I can see, literally all of them have heavy-rail metro networks, too – whether subways or S-Bahn commuter rail networks.

Once again, it’s the British cities that are the outlier. Glasgow has its subway, and very nice it is too, but it serves only a small part of the city, and attempts to extend it have repeatedly been abandoned. Manchester’s Metrolink tram network is now pretty extensive, but also very recent.

Birmingham, meanwhile, has only a single light-rail line, and Leeds nothing at all. All four cities are still fairly limited in their powers to regulate the buses or trains on their patch. None of them offer the sort of extensive public transport networks you’d expect when visiting almost any continental city.

Spot the difference. Image: Tom Forth.

You’re getting the point now, I hope. Most continental European cities have visible local and regional governments whose job it is to speak up for their cities and plan for its needs. They also have extensive public transport networks. British cities have not, in recent times, had any of those things.

Correlation is not causation, of course, and as I admitted above, I’m primed to see the world this way. Perhaps these are the things holding British cities back; perhaps they’re not. At the very least, we have to accept that a mayor and a subway is no magical formula for creating productivity, because if it were, Naples wouldn’t be also struggling along at the bottom of the league table.

Nonetheless, it’s hard not to spot a pattern here. The big British cities have had nobody to speak up for their needs. They’ve had limited investment in their transport networks. And they’re not as productive as their continental peers.

Perhaps these things are unrelated – but it’s a bloody big coincidence, don’t you think?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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Infrastructure populism: on the politics of building big, or failing to

When it comes to infrastructure, they’re all all talk. Image: Getty.

It is famously said of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that at least while he was dragging his country into a war in which over half a million of his citizens died, he was also making sure the trains ran on time. The murdering fascist wasn’t all bad: he did sort out Italy’s railways.

Now, shockingly, it turns out this is all complete claptrap and Mussolini actually did very little to improve the rail system. Popular beliefs to the contrary are all just part of the fascist myth that he built up around himself to validate his governance.

It’s fake news, but the widely believed claim strikes to the core of a bigger issue: politicians hijacking transport as an easy way to connect with voters. Because, despite Chris Grayling’s best efforts, getting from A to B is an aspect of modern life that can hardly be ignored; effective roads are required to keep the population fed and public transport needed to get people to work.

Like Mussolini before him, this is something Donald Trump has recognised. Among the cries of “lock her up” and “bad hombres”, a key part of his presidential election campaign was a promise to ramp up infrastructure investment. Trump was fed up that other countries “look at our infrastructure as being sad”. As someone who has tried to use Amtrak, the US domestic rail service, I’ve got to say I agree with him.

But it’s easy to complain; it’s following through with a solution that’s the real problem. Only 13 per cent of the $1.5trn Trump hopes to raise is going to come from federal purse, with the rest funded by… erm… something else. It’s in this delivery that this went from being a realistic promise of change to just saying what people want to hear.


On this side of the pond, we have a similar problem: Boris Johnson. A politician who regardless of the issue in question will suggest the answer is an absurd, massive infrastructure project in thinly veiled efforts to grab headlines and deflect from any helpful debate.

His stint as London mayor was dominated by such ill-thought out infrastructure projects. The new Routemaster buses and the Emirates Cable Car were a big waste of money. Aborted suggestions include the Garden Bridge Project, which managed to waste another £46m in public money without even being built, and the Thames Estuary Airport.

More recently, on the prospect of a hard Brexit and lorries queuing up the M20, Johnson proposed a road bridge between England and France. To solve the issue of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, he called for another sea-crossing bridge. You get the idea.

So for Johnson, big projects are a cure-all for difficult problems, which can catch the headlines and allow any reasoned criticism to be easily be framed as not “believing in Britain”. 

Unlike Johnson and Trump, the Hungarian President, Victor Orban, has managed to follow through with his big projects. Unfortunately, they have nothing to do with infrastructure. He has instead spent hundreds of millions of Euros on building football stadiums around the country all to the delight of football-mad Hungarians. This, in a country with one of the worst poverty rates in Europe.

In his 2006 study on the future of high-speed rail in the UK, the director of News Corporation and former CEO of British Airways, Sir Rod Eddington, warned against being “seduced by ‘grands projets’ with speculative returns.” His message was intended for politicians but, in a world of Trumps, Johnsons and Orbans, is surely a lesson that should be learnt by everyone.