So why has Liverpool’s economy grown faster than other similar sized British cities?

A pair of Superlambananas, which took over Liverpool during the 2008 European Capital of Culture celebrations. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

Last week in this space, I finally managed to find the overlap in the Venn diagram between urban economics and clickbait, when I published an article headlined, “Since 1998, a major northern city has grown almost as fast as London – and it’s not the one you think”.

The identity of the city in question, which as a dedicated CityMetric reader you’ll already know, was Liverpool. According to the Centre for Cities’ database, between 1998 and 2016 its economy grew by a factor of 2.1 – more than any major British city except London, Edinburgh or Cardiff.

Click to expand, if you must.

Why this might be is not a matter on which I spent too much time speculating. But the correspondence I received about that article, both demanding and suggesting explanations – and, in one memorable case, accusing me of colluding in corruption, by propagating official government figures (don’t ask) – suggests that plenty of other people were hungry for answers on this one.

So: here are some of the more popular theories.

It started from a low base

“The 90s were really bad here, man,” writes one local. My chart used 1998 as its year zero: if Liverpool fell behind its peers in the ‘90s, higher growth in the decades that followed could go largely unnoticed, simply because it never entirely caught up.

That’s no doubt part of the picture. But if you look at wages, it’s clear that Liverpool (in green) really did have a good start to the 21st century, compared to other regional cities:

Click to expand.

So: a partial explanation, at best.

It’s the culture, stupid

In 2003, Liverpool was named the 2008 European Capital of Culture. The city didn’t just spend five years planning its programme of events: it also took pains to ensure the event left a legacy, not just reputational, but in terms of cultural infrastructure, tourism facilities and actual physical venues, notably the Echo Arena.

This was obviously not a factor in, say, Manchester over the same period: so perhaps you’d expect Liverpool to grow more.

It’s the great big shopping centre

Liverpool City Council agreed to redevelop the Paradise Street Area in 1999. Nearly a decade later, as the city was showing its cultural goodies off to the world, the Liverpool ONE development opened: at 42 acres, the largest open air shopping centre in the UK.

Not everyone loves Liverpool ONE, but it did comprehensively remake Liverpool as a retail centre: so again, you’d expect this to have had an impact on the size of the local economy.

It’s all the students

There are four universities in Liverpool. It’s difficult to find comprehensive figures, but there is a consensus that the student body has grown massively in recent decades: Edge Hill University, for example, has increased in size eightfold, from 2000 students in 1993 to around 15,000 now.

All this has a knock on effect – in terms of cafes, accommodation, nightlife. Perhaps this has helped drive Liverpool’s growth.

It’s affordable

The land is cheap in Liverpool. So is living the good life. So is buying a house. “My four storey Victorian townhouse in a conservation area cost £135k,” writes one correspondent. “Soz.”

At any rate: starting a business or undertaking a risky creative venture is easier in Liverpool than in many British cities. Perhaps that’s paying dividends.

It’s because of boundary issues

Something I didn’t explain as fully in the last post as I should have is how we’re defining Liverpool. The Centre for Cities (CfC) data uses “primary urban areas”, or PUAs: collections of local authorities which roughly approximate the economic footprint of a city.

The Liverpool one is actually quite small: just the city council and the neighbouring borough of Knowsley, excluding the other four boroughs of the Liverpool City Region. So it’s possible that the city has benefited from the wider trend for economic activity to move from the suburbs to cities proper.

Demonstrating that is difficult, at least with the data we’ve got. But we can show that Liverpool has grown faster than at least one of its outer boroughs. Because of the width of the Mersey, the CfC data counts the Wirral separately as the city or Bikenhead. It’s clear that the economy there has grown a lot less rapidly than that of the big city across the river:

It’s also possible that drawing the boundaries in different places would produce different results. For example:

So: maybe our figures were not wrong, exactly, but incomplete.

It’s the EU

In 1994, the EU allocated £700m to Liverpool under its Objective One regional development programme. Another £928m followed in 2000; aother £700m shared across the north west in 2007. Between 2014 and 2020, another £450m was allocated to Liverpool. (These figures from the Liverpool Echo.) That money helped fund a huge range of infrastructure across the city, including the Echo Arena.


All of these factors and more have probably contributed to Liverpool’s quiet boom. But it’s this last that I keep coming back to. European money has almost certainly been a big factor in Liverpool’s transformation – and it is very far from obvious that Westminster will be as keen to invest in the city as Brussels was. Little wonder that the city voted Remain.

Thanks to assorted correspondents including Laura Brown, Andrew Lutter, Kelly Scotney, Bren Birkett and Caroline Crampton.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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The media scumbag’s route of choice: A personal history of London’s C2 bus

A C2 bus at Parliament Hill. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

London’s C2 bus route, which runs from Parliament Hill, by Hampstead Heath, down to Conduit Street, just off Regent Street, is one of the bus routes recently earmarked for the chop. It has oft been noted that, of all the routes recently pencilled in for cancellation after a consultation late last year, it was the one most likely to survive, for the simple reason that it links liberal suburban north London with BBC Broadcasting House and Soho; it’s thus the route most likely to be used by people who can convince someone to let them report on its imminent demise.

So it would come as no surprise that former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger took to the Camden New Journal when the consultation began, arguing that it would be a disservice to the local community to discontinue a route where you can always get a seat – seemingly missing the point that the fact you can always get a seat is not a great sign of the route’s usefulness.

It wasn’t always that way. When I left university in 2000, and moved from accommodation near college to up to a rented shared house in N6, the C2 was my bus. I commuted to Soho for sixteen years: for more than a decade from flats around the Swain’s Lane roundabout, and for five years from Kentish Town. While my place of work bounced around from Golden Square to Lexington Street to Great Marlborough, it was always the most convenient way to get to, and from, work; especially given the difference between bus and tube prices.

So when it comes to the C2 I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and bought the bus pass. And by bus pass, I mean those little paper ones that still existed at the beginning of this century. Not just before contactless, but before Oyster cards.

More importantly, it was before London buses operated a single zone. There was an outer zone, and an inner zone, with different prices. To travel from one zone to another cost £1.30, meaning an all cash commute was £2.60, whereas a paper bus pass was £2.00. That made it worth your while to divert to an early opening newsagents on your way to the bus stop (GK, in my case), even if you only got two buses a day.

It’s a measure of how greatly London’s buses have improved over the last twenty years, since first brought under control of the mayoralty, that pretty much everything about this anecdotage, including the prices, seems faintly mad. But there’s more: back when I started getting that bus down to Stop N, literally at the very end of the route, the C2 used single decker buses with a single door. It’s an appalling design for use in a crowded city, which meant most of any journey was, for most passengers, spent fighting your way up and down the middle of the bus to find a seat, and then back again to get off; or – and this was more likely – fighting your way up the bus to get into standing space the driver insisted was there, before fighting your way, etc.

Such buses – and in my former life in the English Midlands I went to school on one of these buses every day – are perfectly functional where bus stops are infrequent and buses rarely standing room only. But running through Camden Town at rush hour, they’re wholly unfit for purpose.

A Citypacer. Image: RXUYDC/Wikimedia Commons.

It could have been worse. I didn’t know this at the time, but a few years before the C2 route had been run using Optare City Pacers. Those are, let us be frank, not really buses at all, but minibuses. That’s something the reveals the C2’s origins, as a hopper route to the west end largely intended for the daytime use of Gospel Oak’s pensioners in the years immediately before bus privatisation. (The C11 has a similar origin, taking the same constituency from Archway to England’s Lane.)

Once responsibility for London Buses was moved to the newly established mayoralty, things improved dramatically. Under Ken Livingstone it went double decker in 2005, and 24 hour in 2007. Under Boris Johnson it was extended from its once, and future, terminus of Conduit Street to Victoria Station, swallowing up the cancelled sections of the 8 bus; this extension was quietly disposed of a few years later, once it was clear no one would notice. (I did.)


In those years I must have taken a C2 the best part of ten thousand times; but for all the years when I wouldn’t have been able to live without the C2, times have reduced its utility, and not just for me. I’m now a 214 sort of guy: these days the top chunk of the C2 route is duplicated exactly by that other bus, which starts up in Highgate Village and, once it gets to Swain’s Lane, follows the same path until the fork of Kentish Town Road and Royal College Street, opposite the long defunct South Kentish Town tube station.

From a few hundred metres below that point, at Camden Gardens, stop C, the 88 starts. That duplicates the rest of the C2’s route, with the exception of the run down Albany Street and onto Great Portland, for much of which the C2 is the only bus.

So the C2, old friend that it is, is pretty redundant in the age of the hopper fare, which allows you to change buses without paying a second fare. That’s even more true now the C2’s otherwise un-serviced stops are being giving over to a re-routed 88, which will pick up the C2’s most northern leg, by not finishing at Camden Gardens anymore and instead going all the way to Parliament Hill Fields. Which will be nice for it.

All this, however, ignores the best reason for getting rid of the C2 (or rather for merging it with the 88, which is what’s actually happening): that first character. The letter. Who wants a bus route with a letter in front of it when even half the night buses don’t have the N anymore? It’s relic of the route’s aforementioned origins as a ‘Camdenhopper’.

That C is twenty five years past its own utility. It’s just untidy. City Metric hates that sort of thing. Get rid.