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.

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

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.