What’s the matter with Sheffield?

Sheffield by night. Image: Benedict Hunjan/Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been sniffing around this database looking for stories to tell for nearly two and a half years now. And one of the questions I keep coming back to is: what’s gone wrong with Sheffield?

Time and again, when trawling through the economic data, the capital of South Yorkshire comes out near the bottom of league tables. Check this out:

Sheffield is a major regional centre, at the heart of a metropolitan area of 1m people, and houses two universities. Nonetheless, it’s in the bottom half of the league table on business start-up rates and patent applications, and dragging along the bottom on business stock and GVA per worker (which, by this point, I am all but contractually obliged to explain is a measure of productivity).

This pattern keeps up if you restrict the field to Sheffield’s direct competitors. Of the eight English core cities, Sheffield has the worst GVA per worker:

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(That’s only £280 less per worker than Nottingham, but still.)

What’s more, this has been true for some years now:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also has the lowest wages...

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...and that’s not new either.

On a host of other measures not quite so bad, but still not great. It’s 6th out of eight on employment rates:

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And 7th out of eight on the ratio of public to private sector jobs:

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Here’s where it gets weird. On education levels – which are generally seen as pretty important if you want a vibrant economy – Sheffield is actually doing alright:

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Relatively few Sheffield residents have no qualifications:

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And it’s comfortably mid-table on those with degree level qualifications. In this it contrasts with Liverpool, a city with which it often competes for the bottom rank on the economic tables:

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What explains all this? Sheffield is far from the only English city struggling to bounce back from post-industrial decline. And it has plenty going for it, not least a relatively educated population and perhaps the most beautiful landscape of any major English city. So why is it finding it so tough?

My guess – and it is only a guess – Is it’s a largely a matter of infrastructure. Sheffield is not really on the way anywhere. Its trains to the capital use the Midland Mainline into St Pancras, rather than the faster East or West Coast Mainlines.

It’s also too far south to benefit from the main east-west routes in the main urban corridor of the north, and the Peak District National Park to its west, gorgeous though it is, makes it disproportionately difficult to get to booming Manchester, just 35 miles away.


Oh – it also, as I’ve noted before, twice, has terrible broadband. Throw in the fact it’s a multi-polar region with a relatively small population, and the fact it doesn’t get the tourist trade you see in somewhere like Liverpool, and the poor place seems destined to get forgotten.

But, as I noted, this is largely guesswork. If you have theories of your own, get in touch.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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These charts show quite how few British cities have seen wages rise over the last decade

Mmm, money. Image: Getty.

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

Why, one may wonder, is everyone in Britain so angry? In 2016, against the advice of experts and the confident expectations of almost everybody, a slim majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union, in a move widely interpreted as a sign of quite how miffed the voters had become.

Ten months later, Theresa May called an election in the hope of capitalising on this anger, apparently forgetting that she was now Prime Minister so people were probably angry with her too, and promptly lost her majority. Despite the apparent return of two party politics after several decades’ absence, there’s an overwhelming sense abroad that most British voters don’t think very much of any of them.

The stream of books and columns purporting to explain this anger has been flowing for some time, and doesn’t soon seem likely to stop. But there are times, when trawling through the Centre for Cities’ economic data, that I’ve wondered if the explanation might actually be rather straightforward.

Below is a chart showing how average real wages – that is, those adjusted for inflation; their actual value, rather than their number – changed in Britain’s biggest cities the decade to 2017. This is a period that covered the financial crash and austerity, so you’d expect the results to not be brilliant.

Nonetheless, it’s still quite staggering to realise quite how tough on the wallet this last decade has been. Of the 63 cities shown, just 15 – less than a quarter – have seen real wages rise in the last 10 years. Just as many have seen wages fall by more than 6 per cent. In three, the fall is over 15. (The national average in this time, incidentally, was a fall of 2.8 per cent.)

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What’s more, the numbers shown on this chart don’t really match the patterns of economic geography I’ve grown to know and love. Those where wages have risen include Belfast, Glasgow and the three north eastern cities of Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough: not places one associates with booms. At the other end of the scale, in several cities I tend to think of as prosperous – Edinburgh, Warrington, London – wages have still not returned to where they stood in 2007.

All this seemed so weird that I wondered whether it might be a function of starting in 2007 – so I looked at the same data from several other starting points. By and large, though, this pattern still holds.

Start the clock earlier, and you’ll find that in slightly more than half of British cities (35 out of 63), wages are still lower than they were in 2004. The national average since then: a fall of 1.9 per cent.

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Or start in 2010, the year the Conservatives returned to power and embarked upon austerity. Since then, real wages have fallen by an average of 1.3 per cent. In 40 out of 63 cities, they were lower in 2017 than they’d been in 2010.

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At risk of undermining my own narrative, things have got better recently. This is the same chart, for the period from 2015 to 2017. Suddenly, things are much sunnier: the national average is a rise of 6.2 per cent, and there are only nine cities where wages haven’t risen.

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So perhaps things are getting better – or at least, perhaps they were. Whether that will continue after Brexit – a move every economist on earth except Patrick Minford believes will hamper the British economy’s growth potential – remains to be seen.


These are only averages, of course: in some cities, they may be influenced by big shifts in specific professions (the fall in pay in London’s financial sector, for example). And a significant minority of the population doesn’t live in any of these cities.

Nonetheless: the reasons why, by 2016, so many voters were so angry with their political leaders suddenly seem rather obvious.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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