The London problem in two charts

London, the dark star sucking in money, energy and people. Image: Getty.

Yes, yes, we all know that the London dominates the British economy. And we probably all realise that this situation is becoming more, rather than less, pronounced over time. Nonetheless, it's not always easy to get your head around quite how significant this problem is.

So, let's illustrate it. This chart shows the total GDP of economies of the "Core Cities": a membership group containing the eight biggest English regional cities outside London. (We’ve stuck to England partly to simplify matters, and partly based on the assumption that cities in the devolved countries have other factors acting on their economies.) As we've said before, the limits of a city can actually be quite hard to define. To stay consistent, here we’re using the definitions set out by Eurostat, the official statistical agency of the European Union.


Nominal GDP value in major British cities. Dotted lines represent provision or predicted figures. Source: CityMetric Intelligence/Eurostat.

The first thing that leaps out at you is that, in economic terms, there's no competition for the title of England's second city: it's Manchester, by a country mile. This, though, seems to be a function of its size rather than wealth: Eurostat puts its 2014 metropolitan population at 2.7m, compared to Birmingham's 2.0m. On a per capita basis, Manchester's GDP is actually slightly lower.

Other than that, though, there aren't really any surprises here. All eight cities follow a similar trajectory of gentle growth up until the 2008 crash, then a sluggish recovery since. Affluent Bristol seems to have recovered from the financial crash of 2008 rather better than the bigger but poorer Leeds. In essence, though, it's the same story all around.

Now, let's see what happens when you throw London into the mix.

Nominal GDP value in major British cities. Dotted lines represent provision or predicted figures. Source: CityMetric Intelligence/Eurostat.

Blooooooooody hell.

A few thoughts on what this graph tells us.

1) London’s economy is bigger than those of the next eight English cities put together.

Around 1.9 times bigger in fact – up from 1.7 at the turn of the century. It’s an order of magnitude bigger than any of its national rivals.

2) This is not just a function of population size.

Under Eurostat’s fairly broad definition, London’s population is actually bigger than the next eight cities put together – and so, you’d expect its economy to be bigger too.

Nonetheless, its economic importance is out of all proportion to its size. According to the definition of London we’re using here, it’s around five times bigger than that of Manchester. But even in 2000, its economy was already more than seven times bigger; that number is now comfortably north of eight.

3) London’s growth is much, much faster.

So steep is London's growth trajectory that the others look like they're flat-lining by comparison. This problem, if we want to call it a problem, has been getting worse. And:

4) There is absolutely no sign of this slowing down.

This disparity in growth presents us with a problem. On the one hand, London's success is a significant driver of the UK economy: on the face of it, national growth figures would look a lot worse without it. So, it’s a good thing, right?

Possibly not – because this disparity lies at the root of many of Britain’s major national problems. It explains why London house prices have long ago detached from reality (more money in the city; more people fighting to move there). It explains the growing popular resentment of the capital and all it stands for.

And it explains why Alex Salmond, the man who could be about to lead Scotland to independence in tomorrow's referendum, has made such political capital from describing London as a "dark star, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy".

As Salmond said, when he first used this label at a New Statesman event last March, the problem with London is, “Nobody quite knows how to control it.” It's not immediately obvious whether we should– but it is clear that the current disparity isn't helping anyone.


Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.


Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 

“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

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

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL