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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What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.