Burnley shows why you can’t rebalance the British economy through manufacturing

Hammerton Street, Burnley. Image: Tim Green/Flickr/creative commons.

Manufacturing plays a larger role in Burnley than in any other British city, taking up 22.6 per cent of its total jobs share. And yet despite this, it has one of the weakest economies of any UK city. So how does this square with calls for a manufacturing renaissance to create a brighter future for struggling places?

This isn’t something that is unique to Burnley. As the chart from our data tool below shows, those cities that had a higher share of jobs in manufacturing tended to have lower productivity in 2017. And no British city with over 10 per cent of its jobs in manufacturing met the national average in GVA per worker. On the other hand, the top ten performers in terms of productivity had much lower shares of jobs in the manufacturing sector. (Of these, Swindon had the highest share at 8.4 per cent.)

Burnley’s lagging performance in terms of productivity is reflected in how well it does on other measures too. Cities Outlook 2019 shows that it:

  • Had some of the highest levels of young people claiming unemployment benefit (60th out of 63);
  • Ranked in the bottom ten in its business start-up rate, with only 36.2 businesses per 10,000 population (the national average was 57.8);
  • Has seen the third slowest growth in population of any city in the last decade;
  • Had the lowest average house price at £107,900, and is the most affordable city, with a housing affordability ratio of 4.3.

This sits somewhat uncomfortably with the notions of both Labour and the Conservatives of rebalancing the economy towards manufacturing. The line goes that Britain doesn’t make anything anymore and, in a world of black and white and no shades in between, is over-reliant on finance and doesn’t make enough goods. But if anything, the data suggests that what Burnley needs is a rebalancing away from manufacturing if its fortunes are to improve, not more of the same.

It also challenges the notion of looking at an area’s ‘strengths’ when assessing its performance, something that many strategies and independent reviews are very fond of doing. But this is the wrong way of looking at the problem. The question for weaker cities like Burnley should not be “What do we have?” Rather, it should be “what have we not got enough of?”


In Burnley’s instance, it is a lack of higher-skilled, higher-paid jobs in both manufacturing and services. In manufacturing, data from the Census shows us that for every high skilled job in manufacturing in the city, there are five lower skilled jobs. This compares to a ratio of one to one in Cambridge and Crawley. And at 6 per cent of all jobs in 2017, it had the lowest share of knowledge-based jobs of any British city.

While national politicians may miss the point on this, it is something that is well understood by Burnley Borough Council. As a result, it has been focussing efforts on expanding the University of Lancashire’s presence in the city, has set out a masterplan for its city centre which goes beyond retail, and where it has been supporting manufacturing firms it has been to help them raise their productivity and the skills of their workforce. All with the aim of helping its economy to adapt in the face of ongoing changes to the global economy.

Assisting cities to adapt to the constant changes in the global economy should be the goal of government. Sadly too much national policy – the Regional Growth Fund and Enterprise Zones to name but two – looks to the past, ignores the situation that cities find themselves in, and doesn’t help cities to adapt to the ongoing changes in the world of work.  In many instances, national politicians are more nostalgic than local politicians.

Recent decades have not been kind to Burnley. If it, and other cities like it, are to fire again, they can’t be constrained by nostalgia. They need help to make themselves attractive to tomorrow’s businesses and workers, whatever industry they’re in.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

You can see more data for all UK cities on the Centre for Cities’ data tool.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.