Three ways the geography of Britain’s exports has changed since 1841

Those were the days: Manchester cotton mills, 1936. Image: Getty.

It’s the 1840s: red bricks, smoky chimneys and big industrial mills. The introduction of the steam engine has resulted in radical improvements to the UK’s production of textile, metalwork and other manufacturing goods. The country is reaping the fruits of the industrial revolution; it is pursuing policies of free trade with the rest of the world and is the most powerful nation on earth.

Fast forward 175 years and much has changed since then. Historical data from the census gives us a broad sense of how the UK’s industrial structure has evolved over time, and what this means for cities.

In particular, the data shows that there are approximately five times (20 million) more jobs today than there used to be in 1841. However, three major changes have meant the UK’s present industrial structure is fundamentally different from that of the Victorian Age.

There has been a total shift from exports jobs towards employment in local services.

Back in 1841, export industries – i.e. those industries that sell outside the local economy to regional, national and international markets – accounted for 60 per cent of all private sector jobs in England and Wales. Around 175 years later, these industries only account for 25 per cent of all the jobs while the bulk of employment is now in local services such as in retail, leisure and construction. Indeed, while there has been a 14 per cent decline in ‘goods’ export jobs between 1841 and 2011, employment in local services grew by 800 per cent.

This shift is the result of huge increases in productivity. Technological improvements, globalisation and other structural trends have made the UK’s exporting sectors more productive, putting money in people’s pockets. As a result, demand for local services has increased, driving up employment in these sectors.


Within export jobs, services exports have become ever more important.

In 1841 the UK’s exporting sectors were dominated by manufacturing, with services jobs accounting for just 1 per cent of all exports jobs. Over the decades, technological improvements and globalisation have meant the UK has gradually shifted away from manufacturing and that the majority of today’s export jobs (59 per cent) are now in ‘services’, such as financial services, information & communication and other professional services.

But this is not to say the UK doesn’t make anything anymore. The aforementioned productivity improvements mean that the UK is still a big exporter of goods today – but it now requires fewer people to be employed in these industries.

The UK’s export economy has shifted South.

Led by London, cities in the Greater South East accounted for 11 per cent of all exporting jobs in 1841. Some 175 years later, these cities account for 30 per cent of all exporting jobs in England and Wales.

This shift of the export economy towards southern cities happened for two reasons. Firstly, cities in the Greater South East have been those best able to attract high-skilled exporting jobs. In these cities, between 1841 and 2011, growth in high-skilled exporting jobs has been twice as fast as in cities in the North and Midlands. Secondly, cities in the North and Midlands have experienced a large fall in their export base in the second half of the 20th century due to the decline in mining and manufacturing and have struggled to replace these jobs. Of the new exporting jobs they have created, these have tended to be in warehousing and call-centres rather than shifting towards exporting higher-value services.

As a result, between 1841 and 2011, cities in the North and Midlands have doubled their number of export jobs, but cities in the Greater South East have had a five times increase in export jobs since 1841.

Click to expand. Source: University of Portsmouth, ‘A vision of Britain through time’.

This is reflected in the experience of specific cities. Take Stoke and Brighton for example: the two cities now account for a similar amount of jobs, but at its peak in 1951 Stoke had three times more export jobs than Brighton. The city was renowned in the UK and internationally for its industrial-scale pottery manufacturing, but since the decline of this industry from the 1950s its economy has never fully recovered.

On the other hand Brighton did not have a strong manufacturing presence in the 1900s, and it played a much more marginal role in the national economy; but over the years the city has continued to grow by attracting high-skilled workers and businesses, and it is now one of the most successful cities in the country.

Click to expand. Source: University of Portsmouth, ‘A vision of Britain through time’.

The divergence in the performance of cities in recent decades has been the result of the varying performance of their exporting sectors. As the data shows, cities need to replace jobs in declining export industries with jobs in new – more productive – exporting sectors, and it is cities in the Greater South East that have been most successful at doing this.

If Local Industrial Strategies are to help improve the fortunes of struggling places, than they should focus on measures aimed at removing the barriers that deter high-skilled exporting businesses to locate in cities outside the Greater South East – particularly investing in skills and focusing on maximising the benefits cities can offer to businesses in terms of access to knowledge and shared infrastructure.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.

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As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.


The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.