Which British cities will be hit hardest by Brexit?

Theresa May in Brussels in June. 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.

A lot of my time at work is given over to worrying fitfully about two things. One is cities policy. The other is Brexit.

What could be more thrilling, then, than a report which combines those two topics into a single piece of research? The answer, as it turns out, is almost anything, because this report is one of the most depressing things I’ve seen in ages.

The study, a joint effort between the Centre for Cities and LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, looks at what both “Hard” and “Soft” Brexit would do to the economies of 62 British cities. (In the unlikely event you’re unsure, “soft” Brexit means we stay in a free trade area with the EU, but have to content with new non-tariff barriers; “hard” Brexit means we leave the free trade area and have to deal with tariffs as well.)

In either scenario, literally every city loses out. Only two cities – Crawley and Barnsley; neither exactly an economic powerhouse – would lose less than 1 per cent of GVA, a measure of productivity, even in the softer scenario.

The vast majority of cities will lose between 1 and 1.5 per cent of GVA under the Soft Brexit scenario. Worst affected would be Aberdeen, heart of the Scottish petrochemical industry which would lose 2.1 per cent. That’s about as much productivity as the UK as gained in its lost decade since 2006.

And this, remember, is in the gentler scenario. Should we have a Hard Brexit – the plan the British government seems to favour – the impact will be twice as bad, and vast majority of cities will be losing between 2 and 3 per cent of GVA.

Aberdeen, once again the hardest hit, would lose 3.7 per cent. Indeed, the ranking of cities doesn’t change much between soft and hard Brexit: seven cities make the top 10 under either scenario; seven more make the bottom 10. A harder Brexit will take a deeper gouge out of the British economy, but won’t change which cities are the worst afflicted.

Much of the debate around Brexit has had a “turkeys voting for Christmas” subtext to it: a suggestion that the areas that voted Leave would be those most likely to take a hit.

The CfC/CEP report shows that the picture is rather more nuanced than that. In both scenarios, the report says:

“...it is economically vibrant cities - predominantly in the South of England - which will be hit hardest and most directly by Brexit... In contrast, the cities least directly affected by either form of Brexit are mostly less prosperous places in the North, Midlands and Wales.”

That implies a couple of things. One is that it wasn’t turkeys voting for Christmas at all: by and large, those cities with the most to lose from Brexit were actually more likely to vote against it. The other is that, since it’ll be the richer cities which are hit hardest, the aggregate effect of Brexit might actually be worse than a simple average suggests.

That, though, is only the short term effect. The report also makes clear that the most affected cities are also the most resilient, and so the best-placed to respond to the shock. Poorer cities may be less vulnerable to the post-Brexit downturn; but they’ll also find it harder to bounce back.

Oh – and then there’s the matter of EU regional funds, which go overwhelmingly to poorer, more pro-Brexit areas, and which are incredibly unlikely to be replaced by the British government. But that’s another story.

 

Here’s a chart showing the predicted reduction in GVA in every city in the report (blue is under soft Brexit, red and blue combined is Hard Brexit). I’ve grouped them by region, to enable you to see how different parts of the country will be affected.

Click to expand.

Andrew Carter, the CfC’s chief executive, called on the government to “secure the best possible trade deal with the EU”:

“That means ensuring that our post-Brexit trading arrangements are as close to our current relationship with Europe as possible.”

“But it’s also critical that the government uses its forthcoming industrial strategy to give cities across the country the investment, powers and responsibilities they need to make their economies as successful and competitive as possible.”

Such a move would make sense: cities must be given as many tools as possible to deal with the shocks ahead. The fear, though, must be that Brexit will take up so much of the government’s time that devolution policy is basically off the table. Even if ministers still want to empower their cities – by no means certain, when you look at the rest of Theresa May’s agenda – it’s by no means clear that they have the capacity to do it.


You can read the full report here.

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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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”