Liverpool’s economy has grown quicker than you think – but what’s the matter with Leeds?

Not a happy owl: Leeds. 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. 

A couple of weeks back in this slot, I made a shocking discovery. Since 1998, measured on the size of the economy as a whole, the fastest growing non-capital among Britain’s major cities had been Liverpool. This result runs so against the received wisdom that I dedicated a second article entirely to exploring possible explanations for the disparity.

 

Click to expand.

There was one possibility I didn’t explore in that last post, however: that it was simply a quirk of starting the clock when I did. Perhaps judging cities on the size of their economies, relative to the same figures in 1998, produced misleading results.

So, let’s run the numbers again. This time, though, we’re going to start the numbers in 2007, the last year of the good times, before the financial crisis and austerity and all that it wrought.

Let’s play our game.

Click to expand.

First thing to note: that Liverpool result wasn’t a fluke. There’s a huge bounce into 2009, which suggests that the 2008 European Capital of Culture award may have been a big help to the city. But while it falls back as the crash beds in and austerity bites, it’s growing strongly again from 2020, and ends the chart in fourth place. By 2016, its economy had grown by more than a quarter.

What of the rest? It won’t surprise anyone to see that London is in first place, or that Bristol – the only other southern English city listed – is running it close. Both economies have expanded fairly steadily (although I’d love to know what happened in Bristol in 2014). The great recession barely touched them, and the western city has probably benefited, too, from people and jobs getting priced out of the capital.

As to the other national capitals, Edinburgh had a wobble in 2009-10, but bounced back fairly strongly. With Cardiff the story is more interesting. Viewed in terms of its progress since 1998, its economy is one of Britain’s star performers. Starting the clock later, though, and we can see it had a tough recession, and its economy took several years to get back to its 2007 value.


Britain’s largest cities outside London, Manchester and Birmingham, are in the middle of the pack. The former has expanded fairly consistently, if unimpressively; the latter had a harder crash but a stronger rebound. Both those things probably fit with what we already knew about them.

It’s at the bottom of the league table that the other surprise lies: the cities of Yorkshire are in trouble.

It’s no shock that Sheffield should be pulling up the rear – it’s consistently the most economically troubled of Britain’s major cities, struggling not just with industrial decline but also poor infrastructure and physical isolation.

The sluggish growth in Leeds is more unexpected. For much of the 20th century, it was the richest of the big northern cities – but it’s clearly in relative decline.

Why this should be, I have no idea. It can’t be the absence of a metro mayor as these figures pre-date them. Poor transport – the inability to link people to jobs – might be a factor, but that’s probably my own prejudices speaking. Got a clue? Write in.

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

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It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.