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.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.