The seven most interesting maps and charts from the Centre for Cities’ latest survey of urban Britain

Slough. All will become clear. Image: Getty.

Yesterday, while everyone was distracted by the chaos surrounding Brexit – again – the government sneaked out some remarkably crappy financial news for councils. Again.

In some ways, this was not the best timing, as the Centre for Cities had just published the latest edition of Cities Outlook, its annual report of the state of Britain’s cities, and well, the news is, hmmm. One key fact to summarise the report’s tone: in 2009-10, the last year before austerity kicked in, only four of the 62 cities it analyses, spent most of their budgets on social care; now, more than half of them do.

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So, we’re stuffed.

The report includes a whole bunch of other upsetting facts:

  • Since austerity began, Britain’s cities have seen a total funding cut of £386 per head, compared to £172 in the rest of Britain. (A quick note here: by “cities”, the report means Primary Urban areas, groups of councils representing their economic footprint.)
  • The largest cuts were in the north, where they averaged 20 per cent of their budgets. Oooh I am surprised.
  • Actually surprising, though, was that London also saw huge cuts: despite being home to just 16 per cent of the population, it swallowed 30 per cent of all council cuts.
  • Other southern English cities, by contrast, were less badly hit; they’ve also been more likely to find other sources of money, such as charging for certain services.

Taking these last three together, it’s hard to avoid a sneaking suspicion there’s some politics going on here. What London and northern cities have in common is Labour dominance; most southern cities are Tory. The motivation here is not necessarily quite as naked as that suggests – it’s likely that populations that tend to vote Labour will have other things in common, too – but nonetheless, it feels a lot like a government that’s protected its own voters while attacking everyone else.

But you’re not here for the stats are you? You’re here for the maps. So here are some of the best ones.

Towns need successful cities

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This one shows the productivity of cities (the bigger blobs) and unemployment in towns (the smaller ones). What do you notice?

For me, it’s the tendency for colours of nearby blobs to be the same: in other words, highly productive cities tend to have low unemployment towns in their hinterland.

The message here seems to be: stop suggesting that economic policy is focusing on cities at the expense of towns. They need each other.

Pretty much everyone’s seen a spending cut

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By my count, there are exactly two cities that have seen spending rises: Oxford and Luton. In every other city, spending has been cut.

Generally, the biggest cuts – those shown here in lighter colours – have hit northern cities such as Doncaster, Wakefield and Liverpool. The very worst hit of all has been Barnsley, where spending has fallen by over 40 per cent.

Cities are under more financial pressure than the rest of the country

On both social care and other services, spending on cities is tracking lower than it is in the rest of country.

Jolly good.

There’s no obvious correlation between the state of a city’s economy and the depth of its cuts

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I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but the striking thing here is the lack of a pattern: heavy cuts fallen on both thriving and struggling cities. Hmm.

Some councils are getting commercial

This is more common in the south, though there are notable exceptions (Oxford, Blackburn) to the pattern:

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“There are questions about whether it is advisable for the public sector to be moving into property investment or charging f or a greater share of the services they provide,” the report says. Quite.

The most productive city in Britain is not where you think

You’re a CityMetric reader. You probably have some idea of the economic geography of Britain, right? There’s a north/south divide, Scotland is doing its own thing, there are pockets of productivity in the historic university towns, but basically all economic activity pointing towards London?

Well: from this year’s Cities Outlook I learned that, in 2017, Cambridge was less productive than… Basildon.

More strikingly still, the most productive city of all in Britain in 2017 was...

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..Slough.

John Betjeman must be turning in his grave.

You can read the full Cities Outlook 2019 report here.


 

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.