The vast majority of British cities are less productive than the European average

Nice: a dead ringer for Sheffield. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

Today sees the publication of a major new report from those chaps at the Centre for Cities. “Competing with the continent” compares the economies of Britain's cities with those elsewhere in Europe.

There's a lot to unpack in there – the report examines 330 cities across 17 countries, including 62 in the UK – and it comes with a whole new database, too. So we're going to be coming back to this one over several weeks.

But the headline conclusion – the key message, the thing you need to take away from this write-up – is this: Things are bad. Things are really, very bad.


Here, to brighten your day, is a litany of badness:

Fewer than one in 10 British cities are more productive than the European average. Just six out of 62, in fact: London, four cities that are essentially satellites of the capital (Reading, Milton Keynes, Aldershot, and, unexpectedly, Slough), and oil-rich Aberdeen.

The other 52 – the vast majority of British cities – are less productive than the European average. In fact, well over half the UK cities examined – 38 out of 62 – are in the bottom quarter of the league table.

To put this another way: outside the rich south east, the productivity of Britain's cities is closer to those of East Germany or Western Poland than to those of France or Spain. Look:

Click to expand.

The UK is also more reliant on a handful of rich cities than other major European nations. London is responsible for 25 per cent of the UK economy; Paris contributes 20 per cent of the French one, and Berlin just 4 per cent of the German one. It’s hard to see this as a good thing.

In what probably isn’t a coincidence, more than three-quarters of UK cities (48 out of 62) have a lower proportion of high-skilled residents than the European average, too:

Click to expand.

In other words – the Centre for Cities doesn’t quite put it this way, but I’m damned well going to – by European standards, the UK is no longer a rich country. It's a middle income country with a couple of rich regions in it.

Still, I'm sure Brexit will sort that out in no time.

There's loads more in this report – seriously, it's going to keep us busy for ages – but we'll save that for future weeks.

For now, though, we'll end with a map that the Centre for Cities made for us specially. (You lucky people.) It shows 62 British cities with the name of their  “twin”: the European city whose economic structure is most similar. So Amsterdam and London are both big cities with diverse service economies; Groningen and Cambridge are both small, university cities with a lot of high-end manufacturing.

Click to expand.

But there's a catch. You can probably guess what it is. From the report:

Using this index shows that 46 of the 62 UK cities have a lower productivity than their ‘twin’ city. This means that, for a similar economic structure, these cities produce less output per worker than their nearest comparator. For example, despite their similar economic structure, productivity in Manchester is 35 per cent lower than in Hamburg.

Here's the map. It's probably the only time you'll ever see Sheffield compared with Nice. Enjoy.

Click to expand.

You can read the full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.