So is London really a drain on the rest of the country?

A sort of metaphor thingy. Image: David Blackwell/Flickr/creative commons.

One common complaint about London is that it acts as “a giant suction machine draining the life out of the rest of the country” – an idea expressed by Vince Cable MP when business secretary, and often repeated by others. But a recent Centre for Cities report suggests that this isn’t entirely accurate.

London certainly is a magnet for young professionals. Our Great British Brain Drain report looked at where students and new graduates move around the country and showed that London is attractive to high achieving graduates in particular. Despite accounting for 19 per cent of all jobs, almost a quarter of new graduates worked in London six months after graduating. This increased sharply for higher achieving graduates and was particularly marked for Oxbridge graduates, 52 per cent of whom found themselves working in the capital six months after graduation.

But if London does suck economic activity from elsewhere, you would expect to see those places closest to it doing the worst – and this isn’t the case. Previous Centre for Cities research has shown that many of our most productive cities are located close to the capital. And as our latest report Talk of the Town shows, some of our most successful towns are those located in its orbit too.

For example, the map below shows the share of people either unemployed or claiming long-term benefits in towns 2011 (the latest available data for towns). It shows that towns neighbouring London have the best employment outcomes, with places such as Basingstoke and Newbury doing particularly well.

Share of residents unemployed or in receipt of long-term benefits, 2011. Image: Centre for Cities/census data.

While commuting to London plays a part in this, proximity to the capital also appears to strengthen the economies of nearby towns by making them more attractive places for investment, too. On average, 22 per cent of jobs in London’s neighbouring towns were in high-skilled exporting jobs (those that are more productive and higher paid), compared to the overall town average of 17 per cent. And as the chart below shows, the share of these jobs tends to be lower for towns either close to weaker cities or in more rural locations, despite the cheaper cost of commercial space in these areas.

The economic structure of a town, proximity to a city and cost of commercial space. Image: Centre for Cities/2011 census data.

Towns close to London also benefit from the movement of higher-skilled people out of the capital. While there is an inflow of young professionals into London in their 20s, this trend is reversed for people aged from 31 onwards with a net outflow of this cohort, many of whom have a degree. Many of these people don’t move very far though, with over half of the people who left London moving to a town or countryside location in the Greater South East.

The concerns that Cable and others have expressed about London have also been applied to other big cities. For example, the Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry has suggested that the growth of Manchester and Birmingham is sucking the life out of their surrounding towns too. But our research shows that it’s actually their underperformance of both these cities that should be of concern for nearby towns, not their success.


Reflecting the experience around London, those towns close to successful cities tend to have better employment outcomes, in part because of access to jobs in the nearby city, and stronger economies in their own right. It is the lack of a halo around our less successful economies that is the problem. And this isn’t just bad for the residents of that city and the national economy as a whole, but also for the residents of nearby towns too.

As such, towns across the country shouldn’t be concerned about whether neighbouring cities are too successful – but instead whether they aren’t successful enough.

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

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Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.