Do Britain’s secondary cities perform better if judged on GVA per head, rather than GVA per worker?

Hamburg: unexpectedly productive. Image: Getty.

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.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been trawling Centre for Cities’ data to first demonstrate, and then explain, a worrying piece of British exceptionalism. With the exception of London, our big cities are economically much weaker than their peers in France or Germany, Italy or Spain. Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Leeds all have significantly lower productivity, expressed as GVA per worker, than similarly sized cities like Hamburg, Barcelona or Marseille.

Digging through the numbers, I found that they have smaller service sectors; lower numbers of businesses; don’t produce many patents; and have a lot of workers with low skills. I have another theory about what’s gone wrong in Britain – one which, if you’ve ever been to CityMetric before, you can probably guess. But before getting into that I want to address a question a couple of people have asked about the data.

In short, it’s this: is GVA per worker a misleading measure? Since the financial crisis, unemployment in Britain – in contrast to many European nations – has stayed low. GVA per worker is a measure that might flatter cities with higher unemployment, because they have fewer workers relative to their size. Perhaps GVA per head would be a fairer measure – on one which, the implication goes, British cities a more likely to punch their weight.

When someone first threw this argument at me, I was slightly torn, if I’m honest. The measure is clearly limited in its usefulness: taken to extremes, a city with one worker and 999,999 people on the dole could in theory have an enormous GVA per worker, but that doesn’t mean it’s a healthy economy.  

And yet, the thing we’re interested in here is productivity – the rate at which value is produced. To know that, you need to have at least some idea of the amount of work being done – so the number of workers seems a more useful measure than raw population.

That, though, is angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff. We can go beyond that, to actually compare how to two measures work out in practice.

Here’s a scatter graph plotting GVA against population size. You’d expect these to be roughly correlated – more people generate more wealth. But that correlation is obviously not perfect, as some places are richer than others; and generally speaking cities that are further left than you’d expect are underperforming, while those to the right are over-performing:

Click to expand.

You can see that both Milan and Naples are outliers: northern Italy is surprisingly rich, southern Italy surprisingly poor. You can also see that German cities (in black) are generally also more productive than the norm.

But from a British perspective, it’s the position of Birmingham and Manchester that’s most concerning: two big cities that look way less affluent than you’d expect. Indeed, both Hamburg and Munich are significantly smaller – yet also significantly wealthier.

The key question, though, is what does switching from GVA per head do to the rankings? Here are our 19 cities, ordered by GVA per worker:

Click to expand.

And here they are ordered by GVA per head:

Click to expand.

Switching measure does change the rankings, a little. On the per head measure, Seville looks significantly better, going from worst to best performing of the three Spanish cities: that suggests a lower employment rate than in Valencia or Barcelona. And Naples goes from a little way behind the pack to way, way behind which I think suggests a much higher one, although my head is starting to hurt.

At any rate, that suggests that judging cities on GVA per head, rather than GVA per worker, can make a difference.


But it doesn’t change the fact that the British cities are clustered near the bottom. Okay, Glasgow and especially Leeds do rather better on the per head measure than they do on the per worker one. But Birmingham and Manchester still look terrible. Britain's secondary cities are still, as a group, performing worse than those of the other four countries.

To put it bluntly: whichever measure you use, something has clearly gone wrong in Britain's big cities. The only question is what.

Next time, in the final instalment of this mini-series, I’m going to put forward a theory as to what that might be. Until then, why not have a play with the Centre for Cities “Competing with the Continent” database?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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

 
 
 
 

How getting a dog made me hate London less

A dog called Martha. Image: Jamie Ross.

I never have been anything but a staunch hater of London. Growing up in what a friend from Chicago called “a forest reserve”, my entire life has been split between a suburban one in a leafy town near Dayton, Ohio and an urban one, spent in stupidly pretty, and still fairly leafy, Edinburgh. I moved to London for a hot second in 2016, hated my job as well as my surroundings, and left, pretty much immediately.

And then, almost two years later, I was offered my current role at the New Statesman, and I packed up my shit and dragged my reluctant boyfriend with me to do it all over again. I sort of enjoyed my summer in London – but I felt strongly that living in the city would never feel like anything other than a necessary evil.

I live in – this is your moment to laugh and call me a posh prick – Notting Hill. It’s a decent location, has more trees and parks than other parts of the city, and, most importantly, is the closest I could get to replicating my old neighbourhood of Stockbridge in Edinburgh, which I loved dearly. But even this isn’t enough to entirely counteract the fact my physical surroundings, on my commute to the office by the Temple, made me feel constantly claustrophobic and stressed. London is cold and unfriendly, compared to many parts of this country, and it is filthy – not in a snobby, prissy, precious fuckhead way, but in a “My life expectancy has probably dropped by three years breathing in this polluted air and stepping on broken glass” way. For my first few months in London, in the middle of the heat wave, walking the streets was like walking through an endless sludge: this was not a city I liked nor one I, really, wanted to live in.

Until I got a puppy.

The one condition my boyfriend imposed when he agreed to trudge down to London with me was that we find a flat where our letting agreement said that we could have dog. So, three months after our move, we got Martha, a twelve-week-old black cockapoo.

Getting her changed our lives in a lot of ways. It’s made it impossible for us to leave the house without having a human being on attendance to watch her like a hawk. It means I now have to wake up at 6:45am every day, weekends included, so that she can take a shit. She has improved our lives remarkably - I mean, we have a living floof doing sweet and adorable shit in our house – but she has changed things a lot.

And the thing I least expected this goddam dog to change has been the way has made me feel more integrated into this godforsaken city: she’s made me appreciate London, even with its downsides.

Actually, something else happened, without which I don’t think my point of view would have changed. Almost immediately after getting Martha – and I mean, like, within hours – I contracted a disgusting cold. The day after that cold cleared up, I got violent conjunctivitis, like the disgusting seven-year-old I am, which took a week to get over.

These two illnesses, combined, lasted around two weeks, so I was trapped at home for roughly seven days of the ten I would normally have been at work. That meant I was around to relieve the puppy burden from my home-working boyfriend.

I was tasked with dragging my puss-filled eyes out to let our dog have a run around, and to get her to piss every couple of hours. This new responsibility forced me to explore the neighbourhood that, for the three months previous, I had generally ignored. What I thought was the worst timing known to man was, not to exaggerate, life-changing. I’m not sure I would have come to this realisation about my new home had it not happened.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Another great day at the park! Pic by fellow small creature @esther.dominy.

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

Happy City by Charles Montgomery is a book all about how urban planning can make or break our wellbeing – what commutes, cars, bikes, and greenspace do to our mental health. One portion of the book is spent debunking the idea that the sheer amount of greenspace in an area is what makes us happy. Montgomery argues that it’s actually the regularity of greenspace that makes a real difference – it’s not just how much grass and trees there is in the city you live in, but how often you get to see it.


Pre-Martha, my exposure to grass amounted to the occasional lunch in a garden and a visit to Hyde Park once or twice a month. But within a matter of days of getting a dog, I learned that I had not one, not two, not three, but five (five!) piss locations within five (again: five!) minutes of my house. Some were suitable for little more than the aforementioned – but others gave her enough room to run after sticks, leaves, tennis balls, and, her favourite, other dogs, so that she’d be pleasantly exhausted for the rest of the day. What I originally thought was just an expanse of buildings and pavement stretching from my flat to Hyde Park was actually filled with pockets of green spaces that made this trash-laden hell-hole feel a lot less oppressive.

Spending time at parks where other dogs also go to piss meant I started to make relationships with other dog-owners too. For the first time in any place I’ve lived in outside of my home town, I actually started to meet my neighbours, and learn about things that were happening in my neighbourhood, that I would never otherwise never known about. I now know Tiggy, Rex, Bubba, and Charlie, as well as their respective owners. I also know about good pubs, family-run restaurants, and free events that are far better than the deeply average, pretentious brunch place recommended to me by The Culture Trip. My neighbourhood has feeling like a dead space between Tesco, my bus stop, and the tube, to a place I can see as a respite from the rest of this stressful city, full of people I know and new places I’d have otherwise not thought twice about.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Me and some new friends from the other day! Hoping for some more social time this weekend 

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

And taking her out at the same time every day, around the 7am mark, means we then almost always run into the same people. A very sweet kid walks to school around the same time and always smiles at her. We see the same woman with her dog, who always greets Martha with aggressive barking, ultimately ending in a congenial ass sniff. We let her jump up at the incredibly patient builders doing construction on a building at the end of our street.

This morning ritual, seeing my neighbourhood when it’s not rammed with tourists but is quiet and reserved for people who live or work nearby, has become a way to decompress at the start of every day. And as a woman, being up and out when it’s often dark, but seeing people I now recognise, means my neighbourhood has become less intimidating. For the first time in London, I feel safe and comfortable even late at night.

Beyond the confines of my neighbourhood, Martha has made me see London, not for what it does for me, but for what it provides for her. Never have I ever had such an appreciation for London’s public transport system than when I got my dog, who wears a big stupid grin at all times when riding the bus. (Her internal monologue honestly appears to be an endless loop of, “ALL OF THIS STUFF WOW MORE STUFF OH GOD REALLY COULD THERE ACTUALLY BE MORE STUFF HELLO EVERYONE HI OH HI WOULD YOU LIKE TO PET MY HEAD?”)

Even long journeys are now a delight, because watching your puppy be amazed, fascinated, and happy at all times, eventually passing out from exhaustion at all the energy expended, is incredibly heart-warming. Faced from the bus, London, even at its busiest, feels far better with my dog than on my own: her pure, unadulterated excitement is enough to make holding a wild animal on a packed motor vehicle worthwhile.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

dad taught me love • dad taught me patience • dad taught me pain

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

I’m almost certain I will never love London. I don’t think I will ever feel charmed enough by the charming parts to outweigh the onslaught of the, often, literal shit it brings with it. Not everything about having a dog in London is great, of course: there is trash everywhere, trash I used to pass nonchalantly but now have to heave my dog away from in case she eats a used condom or even another dog’s shit. And, obviously, living in a city is probably never great for an animal compared to, say, a suburb or the countryside.

But through my dog I’ve learned what’s actually around me, not just what I narrowly perceive on my begrudging walk to work. Doing that has made London feel a lot less like my own personal hell. Slowly, Martha is making London like some kind of twisted, imperfect, home for me.

Sarah Manavis is the digital culture and tech writer at the New Statesman. She tweets as @sarahmanavis.

Martha Ross-Manavis is small and cute dog. You can follow her on Instagram at @heythereitsmartha.