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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Meet the Sheffield social enterprise using shipping containers to tackle the housing crisis

A shipping container, repurposed as housing. Image: REACH.

A Sheffield-based social enterprise is hoping to navigate the rocky waters of the UK housing market, by creating affordable 1, 2 and 3-bedroom homes from shipping containers.

Inspired by an episode of Grand Designs, former police officer Jon Johnson set up REACH – Recycled, Environmental, Affordable Container Homes – in January 2017. Following a small grant from charity UnLtd, the social enterprise built a prototype which it is currently showing off to interested parties from around the UK. Johnson believes it can build 6,000 units a year, helping to plug the housing shortfall and creating genuinely affordable homes.

Just 1.4 per cent of homes in large developments approved by planners in Sheffield in 2016 and 2017 met the government’s affordable definition. In Manchester, it was literally none..

“We need to build the houses people want, where they want them, rather than what developers can bully through,” says Johnson. “I’ve got 40 or 50 housing reports. Are we going to keep writing reports or are we going to do something about it?”

During Johnson’s almost 30-year career in the police force, he saw first-hand the effects that insecure and poor-quality housing can have on communities in Britain. “It underpins everything in society. Everybody needs somewhere to live,” he says. “And if you haven’t got a decent place to be, that is adding to mental or health problems. You're onto a loser from the outset.”


“Decent housing is a human right like air and water,” he goes on. “It’s always been done to us by people who don’t care about standards or quality as long as they’re making money.”

Johnson used skills learnt through his furniture recycling store, Strip the Willow, to decorate the prototype, and sourced every bit of second-hand wood he used locally. The panelling used to be a counter in a local Indian takeaway, the cladding on the roof came from a local mosque. The bedroom headboard is made out of a piano, and light fittings are made out of cymbals.

Each of his eco homes will be 60 per cent recycled, built offsite in three weeks and powered by renewable energy sources. “We aim to make use of million tons of waste we put into landfill every year,” he says.

Changing the playing field

But followers of the UK housing market will be unsurprised when Johnson says there are vested interests and serious obstacles to overcome before REACH can achieve its dream of turning a cottage industry something more substantial.

“The same people will just keep profiteering out of everyone else’s misery,” he says. “We're trying to do housing the right way. It’s about people and planet, not just profit. Housing shouldn't be about giving out millions in bonuses at end of the year.”

But REACH won't be able to build any homes without land – perhaps the biggest hurdle for them to get over.

Following the Second World War, the government freed up land and built prefab housing estates around the country. Johnson believes a similarly bold approach is needed to meet the housing demands of the 21st century.

However, the publication of the social housing green paper last week made no promises to build more social housing. It “doesn’t commit a single extra penny towards building the social homes that are desperately needed,” said housing charity Shelter.

Frustration with this situation led Johnson to set up the National Federation of Affordable Building (NFAB), which brings together organisations from across the offsite construction sector who all would like to see a change in policy. “The reason we set up NFAB was because so many SMEs have had conversations with Homes England and got nowhere.”

The current Homes England system for listing land means building companies need to have a turnover of £50m before they can even be considered for public land – a bidding process that excludes all SMEs such as REACH.

REACH does have backing from the Local Government Assocation, though. It also has Sheffield City Council on board, and is hoping the council will soon be given a piece of land to build the first nine homes, freeing up funds for its first off-site factory.

It's clear that it’s going to take some forward-thinking councils for it to succeed. “We need a Dunkirk style situation with SMEs getting some innovation into the market,” Johnson says. “The issue of land and how much its worth is entirely notional. Land is expensive because people think it is.

“If Homes England can ringfence a percentage of the land they give to the big builders every year, and have that for affordable development, we won’t have a problem because the SMEs will have somewhere to access the market instead of queueing up for massively expensive land.”

At the moment, he notes, “Big builders don’t want to do things any differently because they're protectionist of their profit margins. SMEs can’t get a look in. We need to alter that playing field.”

A sustainable trend?

One popular misconception of homes made from shipping containers is that they are too cold in winter and uncomfortably hot in summer. Some critics also suggest that say the current trend for modular housing is a fad.

But Johnson says that residents will need the heating on for only two months a year: the homes are designed using ‘Passivhaus’ principles, which optimises energy efficiency through its design.

“They are light and spacious,” he says. “It’s how we use the offset of parts of the containers. They are like adult Lego. We can use architectural glass and make some fabulous buildings.

“They’re affordable but they will look like architect-designed houses.”

The one, two and three bedroom models will be sold at £35,000, £65,000 and £90,000 respectively. There is already a large waiting list of people ready to move in once they've secured some land.

At present, “I don’t think it’s a trend,” Johnson admits. But “it will take over the market if it's done right. The tech has now caught up and modular housing can be controlled a lot more intelligently in the factory. It cuts down on construction costs, waste and theft of materials from sites. It makes the whole process of housebuilding a lot more efficient.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to get housing moving in the right direction and get sustainability on the agenda,” he concludes. “That’s not going to happen if we leave it to the big builders.”

Thomas Barrett is the editor of New Start magazine, where this story first appeared. He tweets as @tbarrettwrites.

All images courtesy of the author/REACH.