Both Budget and industrial strategy disappointed: the government still needs to invest in Britain’s cities

Not good enough, chancellor. Image: Getty.

Britain’s cities hold the key to solving our productivity problem as the UK prepares for Brexit. Representing over a quarter of the UK economy, and containing nearly a third of its population and a quarter of its businesses, the 10 Core Cities have a vital role.

The recent Industrial Strategy and Autumn Budget both contained measures that can help us realise this potential – but the government did not go far enough. Despite hopes that the Budget would mark a break with austerity, it contained little that will help our member cities cope with the financial crisis they face. Most significantly of all, there was nothing in the budget on funding of social care, the issue which is threatening the financial position of councils across the country and their ability to carry on delivering high quality public services.

Despite the government’s promise of a review of social care funding by the end of this year, the review has been postponed. As the government delays, councils struggle to cope with rising demand and vulnerable people suffer from poorly funded services.

Extra funding for the NHS is undoubtedly needed, but providing money for the health service to deal with the winter crisis while not providing extra funding for social care – which could make a real difference to preventing people having to go into hospital – is the wrong choice.

Extra investment in housing was the centrepiece of the Budget, but the announcements failed to deliver on the promises of radicalism from Downing Street and Treasury. We do need to see 300,000 homes built a year, but we need to reach those levels quicker than the mid-2020s.

The lifting of the HRA borrowing cap is good news – but rather than trusting cities to get on with building the social homes they need, freedom is limited, tying councils up to negotiate with Whitehall rather than getting on and building. We believe that all core cities should be given the right to borrow against their housing income to build the new homes we desperately need.

A week after the budget came the Industrial Strategy. There was much in it that we welcomed, including a focus on place and infrastructure. But as we have told ministers in recent face-to-face meetings, a significant factor in our cities’ productivity is not due to poor connections, but is linked to deprivation.


The only way to get more people involved in our city economies is to invest in better, reformed public services – for example schools and housing – that will pay dividends later on and can help cities fire on all cylinders, delivering up to an extra £90bn for our economy every year.

International evidence shows that cities that have the most control over taxes raised in their area and the delivery of policy in a way that meets their local needs tend to be the most productive. The UK is still one of the most highly centralised countries in the world – and as a consequence the productivity of our cities is much worse than most international competitors.

There have been some positive moves on devolution from government, but there is much more to be done to deliver the decentralisation of power in the UK, giving cities the freedom to align services and investment at the level of place.

The Budget in particular was disappointing for cities. Their financial position isn’t significantly improved, the promised radicalism on house building failed to appear and we are still a long way from having the tools we need to deliver significant mprovements in productivity.

However, we are working hard to engage with government and recent meetings with both the secretaries of state for transport and communities have seen government signal its willingness to listen to our ideas and work in partnership with Core Cities UK to deliver a better, fairer and more productive Britain.

Cllr Jon Collins is Core Cities UK cabinet member for finance and leader of Nottingham City Council.

 
 
 
 

“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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