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.

 
 
 
 

This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.


As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.