Why Europe’s capital cities are pulling away from their countries – and what we can do about it

European productivity: blue is high, red is low. Image: CER.

Europe’s capital cities are much more productive than smaller cities and towns: the average metropolitan worker produces about 50 per cent more output than workers elsewhere. The divide between capitals and everywhere else is growing, too. Europe risks becoming as divided as the US, where the economic and cultural fault-lines between the coastal ‘elite’ and the Rust Belt were one reason why Donald Trump won the presidency. At the Centre for European Reform, we’ve put together a model which explains what is behind this divergence Europe. It also points to some possible solutions.

Reason number 1: Europe’s largest cities, like black holes, have a kind of gravitational mass. Some of you may remember the gravity equation from high school: take two objects, multiply their masses together, and divide that by the square of the distance between them. We did the same equation with all of Europe’s regions, and the bigger economic heft of most capital cities make workers there more productive.

We have good theories about why that’s the case: cities allow companies, especially those producing high-value services that don’t need large factories, and workers to cluster together. Companies get the benefit of a large pool of potential workers, and can select the most productive ones for jobs. They can also cut the costs of services and goods that they need, because there is plenty of nearby competition between other firms seeking to supply them. With so many companies to choose from, workers can more easily find one that fits their skills. Result: higher productivity.

What’s a bit more interesting, though, is that how densely populated a region is doesn’t matter very much, but being close to other successful regions really does. Rural Surrey isn’t just a commuter dormitory full of antique shops, but has lots of productive businesses. That’s because it is easy to get to London by train. Berlin is the only European capital that is less productive than the rest of the country. It is still overcoming the legacy of the Berlin Wall and communist rule in the East, but it is also a long way from the heartlands of the German economy in the West.

Reason number 2: Regions with big graduate populations are more productive. If the graduate share of, say, Rome’s population rose by 1 per cent, then our model predicts output per worker would rise by around 0.4 per cent. That link between higher education and productivity has been on the rise, too. Back in the year 2000, 1 per cent more graduates would have meant 0.2 per cent more productivity.

We can’t be sure if graduates are becoming more productive, or whether they have been moving to places that are already productive. But we have good reason to suspect it’s mostly because graduates have been increasingly moving to capital cities (and other productive places). The graduate population has risen faster in most European capital cities than in the rest of the country – bar Brussels, for some reason.


Reason number 3: The older the population, the less productive the region. That link has been growing over time, too. That’s probably because Europe is ageing so rapidly, and retired people buy a lot of consumer services, like day trips, shopping and social care, which tend to involve jobs with low productivity. And, because many young graduates move away – and often abroad, if they’re from Central and Eastern Europe – we’re seeing a slow process of geographic sorting, with younger, more highly educated people clustering together.

So what should we do about it? The solutions are fairly straightforward, but they require quite a lot of public investment. First, Europe needs to bring rich and poor places closer together, with better transport and communications links between successful cities and peripheral towns. This way, the economic reach of the successful cities is widened, with smaller towns offering cheaper office space and housing that’s within reach of the metropole.

Second, post-industrial conurbations – think of the Ruhr area and Northern England – have the potential to become highly productive hubs themselves. But in order to get there, governments need to invest in universities and research centres in places like Essen, Duisburg, Manchester and Leeds, which will help to draw in a highly educated workforce.

Third, all young people should have some tertiary education. The pan-European expansion of university education in the 1990s and 2000s raised labour productivity. It’s wrong to think that there’s no point educating everyone beyond a certain point: that argument was made in the 1800s against universal primary education and in the early 1900s about secondary. In a services-dominated economy, people need to be highly numerate and literate to get good jobs – and it may be worth reforming humanities degrees to give people who take them a head for numbers.

These policies will be familiar to CityMetric readers: they’ve been suggested many times before. But action’s now quite urgent, given sluggish growth outside the metropoles, as well as Europe’s increasingly nasty politics.

John Springford and Christian Odendahl are economists at the Centre for European Reform.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.