Where are Britain's biggest city economies?

Couldn't work out how to illustrate this so here is a metaphor. 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 Europe's cities.

We talk a lot, round here, about which are the largest cities by population. (Nerds gonna nerd.) We talk a fair amount, too, about which have the richest residents.

What we don't talk about so much is the intersection of those two factors: which cities have the biggest economies? Where are Britain’s powerhouses and engines really located? London, obviously – but beyond that, what does the league table look like?

Let's fire up the datatron.

The first thing to say is that London is so much bigger than its nearest rivals – so many more people, generating so much more wealth – that it completely knackers the charts. Here's a scatter graph plotting population (of each city's primary urban area, explained here) against GVA (gross value added, a measure of economic output).

See if you can somehow pick London out of the crowd:

Let’s take it as read that London is far bigger than the other cities. To make these charts look in any way meaningful we're going to have to drop the capital.

Here's a bar chart showing the 20 largest city economies outside London.

GVA in £bn. Image: Centre for Cities.

Unsurprisingly, Manchester and Birmingham are way, way ahead of the pack. What’s perhaps more unexpected is that, at least on this measure, the Manchester economy is slightly bigger. I thought this might be a quirk of the population data – using a definition on which Manchester simply has more people than Birmingham – but surprisingly, no.


That said, there's not a lot of space between them. They're of the same order of magnitude, and a long way ahead of the next cities down. Which gets to be second city is an unanswerable question, but nowhere else is really in the running for the title.

There are a few more surprises in the next bit of the chart. That Bristol would have a bigger economy than Leeds, for example: maybe this is me making dodgy assumptions, but Leeds feels like it should be on the next level up from Bristol, not struggling to keep up with it. And yet.

Similarly, it's striking that Reading’s economy is nearly as big as Nottingham's, and that Cardiff is out performed by Bournemouth, Milton Keynes and Southampton. As ever, it's one thing to know there's a north-south divide in theory. But Reading? On a par with Sheffield?

Part of this is down to size, of course – more people will mean a bigger economy, generally speaking. So here's that scattergraph again, without London this time. This time it's interactive, so you can hover over a dot to find out which city it is and get the data.

 

There's a clear correlation between the two variables (duh). But it's not perfect. Dots that are higher than they should be represent cities that are outperforming the average (economies bigger than you'd expect for a given population); dots that are lower than they should be are the opposite.

Reading is on one side of that notional line; Sheffield on the other. You can probably guess which way round.

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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A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.