The problem of Herefordshire: on the difficulty of fairly representing small places

The River Wye in Herefordshire. Image: AnitaHolford/Wikimedia Commons.

One of the odder things that I witnessed this past political conference season: an event on the Labour fringe being hijacked by what seemed to be some sort of Herefordshire Popular Front.

The event in question was on the rise of the metro mayor, and what it meant for Britain’s cities. But almost as soon as the chair invited questions, a man from Herefordshire popped up to complain that this focus on cities would cause us to forget about areas that were not, in fact, cities.

Shortly afterwards, a woman raised her hand, to make exactly the same point (she turned out to be married to the first questioner). A third person – not, to my knowledge, from Herefordshire – complained that the rise of mayors would simply turn the regional cities into “mini-Londons”, although exactly what this meant (rich? Good public transport?) wasn’t exactly clear.

At any rate: the point that come through loud and clear was that any party which aspires to government mustn’t forget Herefordshire and other largely rural counties.

The problem is, there are two reasons why Herefordshire rarely features in Labour thinking. One is that the party barely exists there. Herefordshire council has 27 Tories, nine independents, two LibDems, three Greens and 10 representatives of the intriguingly named “It’s OUR County!” party. It doesn’t have a single Labour councillor, and its two parliamentary constituencies are both safe Tory holds. It’s not crazy that Labour isn’t giving that much thought to Herefordshire.

There’s another reason this is true: to the first approximation, nobody lives in Herefordshire. It has a population of around 190,000, which is nothing, really: under 0.3 per cent of the UK population. If it were an urban area, which it very obviously isn’t, it’d be the 40th largest in Britain, slightly above such bustling metropolises as Crawley and Swindon.

We can take that further. There are 10 boroughs in Greater Manchester. Herefordshire has fewer people than nine of them, and roughly ties with Bury. London has 32 boroughs. Herefordshire’s population is roughly on a par with that of the 29th largest, Richmond-upon-Thames.

The reason I’m banging on about this – see, you knew I’d get to a point eventually – is because it doesn’t feel to me like we treat these two units of roughly equal population as the same. Demanding attention for Herefordshire at a political conference feels silly, but it doesn’t feel ridiculous: of course we can’t go ignoring entire counties.

Now imagine someone standing up to demand attention for Richmond-upon-Thames, or the Metropolitan Borough of Bury. It doesn’t work, does it? Somehow a county has something – a landmass; an identity – that gives it weight beyond its population, a right to be heard.


Except – does it? Why do the 190,000 people who live in Herefordshire deserve more attention than the 190,000 people who live in Bury? Why should one matter more than the other?

This is a less theoretical problem than one might suppose. We hear a lot in British politics about the over-mightiness of London, which is fair enough, really: the capital does dominate national political life to an unusual and damaging extent.

But there’s another part of the UK that also, I think, gets attention out of proportion to its actual population. Scotland (pop: 5.4m) doesn’t get as much attention as London (pop: 8.8m), of course. But its internal politics gets vastly more coverage than that of any other area of the UK, even though several – Yorkshire, the West Midlands and the North West, to name but three – have more people.

So why do people from those regions get angrier about the way London warps national debate around itself than they do about Scotland doing the same? Partly it’s because London’s dominance is greater; partly because hated of the capital is a fairly universal phenomenon.

But also, I suspect, it’s something else, summed up by the response you tend to get if you point out to a Scottish nationalist that there are lot more people in London than in Scotland: the latter is a nation, the former merely a city. There’s something there – a history, an identity – that gives it a weight beyond its mere population size.

This tendency to privilege some sorts of identity over others is a natural and fairly universal impulse. Sovereign states get one seat at the UN regardless of population, and Germany and Malta are both EU members, even though the former is around 190 times the size of the latter. All 50 states get the same number of US senators, even though their populations vary by a factor of 67.

But it bothers me, nonetheless. Luxembourg and Malta are not as important as Germany and France. And when it comes to government policy, London should get more attention than Scotland: including its commuter belt, it has over twice the people, and contributes far more to the UK’s growth and prosperity. From a purely utilitarian, sum-of-human-happiness point of view, London matters more. Bugger nationhood: it’s simply a property of the maths. In the same way, it’s not that I think we can ignore Herefordshire, I just think it’s less important than, say, Milton Keynes.

I’m aware this is a difficult area, that historic identities are important, that population size isn’t everything. Nonetheless, I think population size is most things, and that we are more prone to under- rather than -over-playing its importance.

Don’t believe me? Look at the United States election of 2016, where Hillary Clinton got 3m more votes than Donald Trump. So why is the latter president right now? Because the US electoral system gives disproportionate weight to states with tiny populations.

I don’t want to overstate this: I’m just saying that paying too much attention to Herefordshire could literally bring about nuclear war with North Korea, that’s all.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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