Oxford vs Middlesbrough: on the urban geography of Brexit

Brexit is depressing so here are some kittens. Image: Getty.

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

Last week, I wrote – at surprisingly great length – about a map who showed Tory fortunes in Britain's cities during last year's elections. Short version: badly.

Medium length version: the party's strategy was to attempt to attract Leave voters by

a) pushing for a full-fat version of Brexit, and

b) being quite rude about Remainers.

Sadly – for a certain value of sad – this seemingly alienated more affluent Remainers without doing much to attract less affluent Leavers. Aww. Here's that map, from the Cities Outlook 2018 report, again. To its left is a map of the referendum result:

Click to expand.

You can at least see what the Tories were thinking. Those dark green dots in the left-hand map represent particularly leave-y cities, and – outside the Thames Estuary, at least – they're by and large a litany of Labour areas. A Tory party that could win Doncaster, Middlesbrough or Hull is a Tory party that would be pretty much unassailable.

In practice, of course, it didn't work out like that. What we actually got was a Tory party that made remarkably little progress in Doncaster or Hull, actually lost ground in Middlesbrough, and managed to place itself beyond contention in Oxford, Brighton and Exeter, so well done there.

It's also worth noting how the referendum itself played out across the country. Those really dark green blobs – where the Leave side won 63 per cent of the vote or more, effectively a lead of at least 25per cent – are largely smaller, post-industrial cities: places where the old industrial economy has died but which, unlike Manchester or Leeds, have struggled to attract service businesses that depend on deep labour pools.


But there is an exception to this rule. It's those smaller cities in the Thames estuary: Basildon, Southend, Chatham. There may be cultural factors at work here: Essex has long been thought fertile territory for the more jingoistic forms of Tory-ism, but that's a culture you can also find in northern Kent (but not, strangely, northern Essex, which is much more East Anglian in tone). As I've written before, for all the talk of the rich South East, wages and productivity also tend to be lower to the east of London. Since the referendum was a generalised "everything is not okay" sort of a vote, economics may well have been a factor here too.

On the other side of the fence, the most Remain-y cities in England and Wales tended to be university towns, big cities, or both. Oxford, Cambridge and Brighton are the obvious examples. But elsewhere in the country, Exeter, Cardiff, Liverpool, Leeds and York are all notably more remain than the cities around them.

There are two partial exceptions to this. Neither Birmingham nor Manchester look like particularly Remain-friendly territory on this map. My guess is that's a boundary thing: the Centre for Cities' definition of Brum includes Wolverhampton (sorry) and a number of other contiguous suburbs, and its Manchester contains every borough in Greater Manchester except Wigan. While the cities themselves have proposed, some of their suburbs have, like so many other post-industrial areas, been left behind.

Here's a quick chart before we go. This one plots the EU referendum result against cities; prospects for developing high-skilled private sector jobs. In other words, cities on the right of the chart are the most likely to boom, those on the left the most likely to struggle.

Click to expand.

The correlation screams at you. As the report says, the chart

shows a negative relationship between the referendum result and the share of jobs projected to grow which are high-skilled. The implication is that if patterns of job creation in the future reflect those of the past then the political divide illustrated by the referendum result will likely grow wider.

Or to put it another way: in places which voted for Brexit because their economies are rubbish, the economy is likely to get worse.

If anyone can think of any good news, please do write in. In the mean time, you can read the rest of Cities Outlook 2018 here.

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

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It’s not all cool bridges and very real concerns: In defence of Teesside

Just one of the many interesting bridges you’ll find in Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

The latest entry in our ‘In Defence Of’ series...

I have to start this with a disclaimer: I’m not writing this from anywhere in Teesside. I’m writing this from Germany, where I live and work. Some of you may remember being told by Norman Tebbit, that instead of complaining that we can’t find jobs, we should get on our bikes (or, more recently, by IDS to get on a bus), and I did. I’m paid well here, to do a job that doesn’t really exist in Teesside. And yet, every time I go home to visit my family, I almost wish I’d stayed.

This isn’t going to be a very straightforward take – I’m hoping to pay my respects to Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as well as my native Billingham – but Teesside isn’t a very straightforward place. What county is it in? Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham or North Yorkshire depending on how old you are and where you’re standing. I always had great fun ordering online and trying to guess which of the unfamiliar options on the dropdown menu would get my parcel to me.

But regardless of where you draw the lines, Teesside is still there.

Our accent is similarly hard to pin down: Geordie, Mackem, Yorkshire, even Scouse, depending on who’s imitating us. I’ve been pegged as Irish, American and South African by determined people in the past. Our slang is stolen from Scotland, Northumberland, Newcastle and Yorkshire, and, not satisfied, some words are purely our own. Hoy, shan, howay, dinner nanny. We have as many words for classless people as the Romans did for murder.

But regardless of how it sounds to you, Teesside still talks.


On a map of the UK, Teesside sits as an isolated blob of civilisation between the Dales and the sea. Half-urban, half-rural, half-seaside, half-inland, half industrial estate and half nature reserve. A Labour heartland with a Tory mayor. Places that sprang up fully formed in the ICI rush of the 1950s, but that still have Viking place names.

We’ve been portrayed in fiction by Richard Milward, in song by Maximo Park, in statistics by Lady Florence Bell and in cinema by Sir Ridley Scott (our chemical works and power plants inspired the look of Blade Runner). More recently, we’re being portrayed in documentary in The Mighty Redcar, and in the media as an area of left-behind, white working class racists who all voted Leave. But while most of the area is whiter than the average, Middlesbrough mirrors the UK average for racial diversity and has been assigned to resettle more refugees than any other town in the UK – and more than its cut-back council can look after.

And when you look at the numbers, the proportion of the population of Teesside who voted to leave the EU is much less than many other areas. (And yes, of course I voted Remain from my now slightly more precarious home in Frankfurt, joining 100,000 other Teesside Remainers.)

We’re pitied for the loss of the Teesside steelworks and derided for blaming the EU for it (when of course it was our own government’s sabotaging of EU attempts to block Chinese steel dumping that drove that knife in). Even the people who profess to be on our side take our angry, uneducated racism as fact, baking it into the premises of their arguments, which consist of addressing our “racist but real concerns”, and how to reach us.

But whether you understand us or not, whether you miss the point or not, we’ll continue to exist, long after we’ve been forgotten again.

Billingham town centre. One of the first pedestrianised town centres in the UK. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Still, while we’re in the spotlight, why not see what we have to offer? Come to see our rather wonderful collection of interesting bridges. See where the first public steam train ran, from Stockton to Darlington. Visit Mima, the modern art gallery in Middlesbrough and the 1960s utopia of Billingham’s pedestrianised town centre. Feel slightly uncomfortable around all the things that are named for Captain Cook (though the replica of the Endeavour at Stockton riverside is impressive regardless on your thoughts on its captain – and it’s the best you’ll see until they work out whether they’ve found the real one yet). Wander Middlesbrough’s thriving student/hipster district on Linthorpe RoadD – despite being a punchline during my youth, Teesside University has become a respected institution. Visit Billingham’s Folklore Festival in August, where as schoolchildren we’d watch troupes of folk dancers from across the world open-mouthed, and get their autographs afterwards as though they were celebrities.

Fried chicken, white sauce and cheese make the Teesside parmo. Perfect. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Try a parmo. Try the Billingham Catholic Club’s real ale, and stay for the bingo, which is called by a man with the most acrobatic mental arithmetic skills I’ve ever seen. Try a lemon top ice cream from Pacitto’s in Redcar and wonder why no one else has ever done this before. Lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream! Together at last!

While you’re at the beach, take a ride on the Saltburn Cliff Lift, the oldest operating water-balance cliff lift in the UK. Pretend Saltburn is sort of in Teesside while you’re enjoying the view. Look out on beaches black with sea coal, washed up from undersea seams and nearby coal mines. Visit the golf course by Seaton Carew to catch a glimpse of a curlew or two, and watch the young seagulls pick up golf balls to crack them open by dropping them from a great height. Visit Seal Sands, whose owners can be observed lazing on the estuary banks whenever the tide is out. Or visit Saltholme, the RSPB nature reserve, where you can see avocets, Britain’s weirdest-looking and most beloved seabird.

Nature coexists with industry on Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Go white water rafting, bell boating or paddleboarding at the Tees Barrage, where there are so many seals that they’ve had to put up guards to keep them out of the way. The Tees used to be too polluted even to support salmon and trout, and now we have too many of one of Britain’s largest native mammals. The return of the seals to the Tees was the first documented case of seals returning to an industrial area. You’d be surprised at how well nature can thrive in the shadow of industry, colonising the quiet fields and marshy ponds on private land that are never disturbed, haunted by sika deer and shelducks, redshanks, knots, stonechats.

Teesside has plenty to offer. What it doesn’t have is the jobs to keep its younger generations from having to get on their bikes and leave. We aren’t aliens, or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s army of goblin henchbrexiteers. We’re just like you, but with more seals and fewer employment opportunities.