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

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

Could modular housing help Britain build the homes it needs?

Pre-fabricated housing being moved into position in Los Angeles in 2012. Image: Getty.

We’ve got ambitious government targets, an appetite to build and huge numbers of people who need housing. But we’ve known all this for some time, yet we are still in the same situation – a housing crisis.

So let me start with an obvious yet uncomfortable truth - relying solely on traditional construction methods will not halt the housing crisis. This isn’t a comment on the traditional product or its processes, more a reiteration of a well-known fact: skills capacity is also at crisis point. 

It’s a stalemate situation. In 2016, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released a report on the relationship between housing and employment. The report found that neighbourhood investment creates a sound basis for employment, and that affordable rent provides a greater incentive for people to work.

One relies to some degree on the other. After all, a home is about so much more than bricks and mortar. So why aren’t we jumping at the chance of doing things differently to get out of this impasse?

The UK is something of an outlier when compared to many of our continental neighbours. Areas like manufacturing have seen steady productivity growth over the last twenty years, allowing more economic growth with the same or fewer number of workers. However, the UK construction sector has seen productivity flat line for the past two decades. This limits growth, and means a loss of more than £100bn a year of economic benefit.     

There are alternative products and processes we can take advantage of – but we seem to be simply dipping our toes in the water. Personally, I think we’re suffering from a lack of confidence. We need confidence in the quality of modular products (which, clearly, from our recent YouGov research, the public doesn’t have). We need confidence in the durability of MMC (modern methods of construction) products.

And we need confidence in the sector that the intention of modular suppliers is to add to capacity, not to replace traditional processes.

This is why my team are currently working with a range of modular and MMC suppliers to robustly compare and contrast a range of housing products. It’s a live research project in Gateshead that will monitor and evaluate the build process and lifestyles on offer through a range of different construction methods – including traditional. The homes will be for affordable rent and tenants will be involved in the ongoing evaluation.


So why are we doing it? If we make this research available to other developers perhaps as a sector we can make more confident and informed decisions about new construction methods.

Because while MMC is being used across the sector, we’re not using it at scale. And its scale that we need to affect change: 300,000 homes is no small number, after all. (What’s more, according to a survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, only 12 per cent of surveyors believe we can hit that target – another confidence boost needed).

 MMC isn’t as affected by the crisis in construction skills capacity. It’s an entirely different skillset. So it’s not about skilled tradespeople jumping ship.

You could almost envisage two different pathways into housebuilding. Studies have told us that millennials are purpose-driven, and therefore most likely to be attracted to organisations that are driven by purpose. So maybe that’s how we have to think about careers in construction.

There may be two distinct pathways being formed with two distinct skillsets – but ultimately, both are responding to the housing crisis. Perhaps that’s the draw. And having increased opportunities may well see an increase in people working in the sector overall. 

We’re not competing in a crowded marketplace. There is a desperate need for more homes. We need to embrace every construction method available to us and work collaboratively to meet the government’s targets.

Let’s keep the end goal in mind and not be restricted with the way we’ve always done things. It’s time to take a different approach.

Mark Henderson is chief executive of the housing association Home Group.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook