Why do some cities create jobs, while others lose them?

Where is England's mystery boom town? Image: The Voice of Hassocks/Wikimedia Commons.

Which English city do you think has seen the biggest growth in its jobs market over last century or so? Is it London with its financial wizardry and exciting new tech industry? Manchester with its trams and its media? Cambridge with its science park?

We're being terrible unfair here, because you will quite literally never guess. (You really won’t.) Here’s the top 10:

Now Crawley, a mid-sized town in West Sussex, has two big factors working in its favour on this one. One is that it was tiny in 1911, with a population of just 5,000. It's now 20 times that size, thanks in large part to being a convenient 45 minute train ride from central London. And even though it’s mainly a dormitory town for the big city, when a town’s population grows by that much, its job market is inevitably going to grow by a fair bit, too.

The other advantage Crawley is sitting on is the presence of a rather big airport next door at Gatwick. Being next to an airport can do many horrible things to a town, but if considered from a purely employment perspective, they tend to be rather good.

You can spot the same phenomena at work in some of the other cities that make the top 10. Many of them have seen significant population growth over the last century; two more are conveniently placed for international airports.

But other factors seem to be in play, too. Being close to London clearly helps. So does the presence of a university, around which research-focused companies can cluster. There isn’t an obvious single factor.

Now consider the towns and cities which have going in the opposite direction. In 1911, Burnley, a market town in eastern Lancashire, had a population of more than 106,000. By 2011 it had fallen to 73,000, a fall of nearly a third.

But that's nothing compared to the collapse in the town's job numbers, which have fallen by half.

With this table it’s much, much easier to spot the pattern. Every one of these towns and cities is in the densely populated northern belt that stretches across England from the Mersey to the Humber. In 1911, this was Britain’s industrial heartland.  A century later, it wasn't anymore.


The importance of being southern

These tables both come from “A Century of Cities”, a report published early this month by the Centre for Cities think tank, which looks at a hundred years of economic data covering cities in England and Wales. For obvious reasons, the report is concerned in part with Britain’s north/south divide. But it also argues that we’ve been misdiagnosing that divide – or at least, that we’ve been coming up with the wrong treatment for it.

A century ago, the report says, the biggest driver of city growth was proximity to resources. That could mean coal, or other things you put into factories; then again, it might mean docks or transport links. Either way, it was fundamentally a matter of physical geography.

Now, though, the biggest driver of growth is proximity to “knowledge”: the cities that have thrived are those which have succeeded in attracting skilled workers and clusters of expertise. In other words, it's now human geography that drivers growth.

That means that the cause of the north/south divide is not the collapse in manufacturing in itself (after all, London lost plenty of manufacturing jobs, too). Rather, it’s the failure to develop or attract the skilled workforce you need to replace it with something else.

In other words, policies intended to revive the manufacturing sector, most recently chancellor George Osborne’s pledge to create “march of the makers”, are solving the wrong problem. Apart from anything else, modern manufacturing just isn’t as employment intensive as it once was.

Knowledge is power

It’s also overly simplistic to say that job growth has been an entirely southern affair. Here's a map of which cities have lost and gained jobs over the last century:

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The south is clearly doing better; but in the north, the picture is mixed, rather than universally terrible.

There's a stronger correlation than the one between "southernness" and growth; that's the one between skills and growth. Here’s another map, showing the share of each city's jobs in private sector knowledge-intensive business (KIBs). The correlation with jobs growth is far from perfect, but it definitely seems to be there:

Click to expand

As to what drives the distribution of those exciting sounding KIBs jobs, one big factor is history. There is also a clear correlation between where knowledge-based jobs were in 1911, and where they were by 2013: if a city didn’t have many of them a century ago, it’s pretty unlikely to have that many of them now. 

That said, the impact history has isn't always a straightforward one, and an early industrial decline may work in a city’s favour when it comes to breaking into new types of industry. These graphs show the distribution of different types of jobs in Manchester over time:

The city’s manufacturing sector was already collapsing by the middle of the 20th century. But one side effect seems to have been that the number of knowledge-intensive jobs in the city began to grow early, too.

Now look at the same graphs for Birmingham:

Birmingham's industrial decline came later – but it’s been slower to build up its share of high-value service jobs, too.

So, how do you improve a struggling regional economy? The report makes three suggestions. You can improve the skill of the workforce. You can encourage “knowledge networks” – universities, research centres, clusters of business and so forth – to form, boosting the productivity of those workers.

Or you can deal with the scars left by industry – desolate factories and so on – and focus activity in the city centre to encourage that process. All of these suggestions should lead to more productive individuals, working in a more productive way.

But building an airport helps, too.

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.