Can poor public transport really explain Britain’s productivity problems?

Look, no buses. Image: Getty.

In every developed economy in the world, cities tend to get more productive as they get more populous. But not in Britain.

All of the UK’s largest, non-capital cities except Bristol are less productive than would be expected for their size, and they are poorer than almost all similarly-sized European cities. This is a major problem, causing both Britain’s productivity deficit and its wide inter-regional inequality. For all the recent political attention lavished on towns, it is Britain’s cities that under-perform most.

In January, after analysing bus journey times in Birmingham, Tom Forth suggested on CityMetric that Britain’s urban weakness might be because of poor public transport: not enough people can get into city centres, where workers can be most productive, at rush hour within reasonable commute times.

To see if this theory worked for other cities, I calculated working populations for four under-performing British cities – Manchester, Glasgow, Sheffield and Newcastle – and the two cities among Britain’s 20 largest that, London-aside, have the highest productivity – Bristol and Edinburgh.

To do this I calculated rush-hour journey times from Lower Layer Super Output Areas (called data zones in Scotland), which typically contain about 1,500 residents, to city centre locations using Google Maps for a commute at 8am on a Monday morning.

Here’s what I found:

The study shows no match between cities’ ability to convert listed population into working population and their relative productivity. Newcastle, especially, and Glasgow can get a high percentage of their populations into their centres within 45 minutesm and yet are poorer than expected; while prosperous Bristol and Edinburgh are middling at converting listed population into working population.

The results do map onto the quality of the cities’ transport networks, though. Newcastle and Glasgow have major roads feeding into their city centres and the only two metro systems in the six cities, while Glasgow also has Britain’s largest suburban rail network outside London. Developed transport infrastructure, whether public transport or roads, appears crucial in converting listed population into working population.

Both in Britain and elsewhere, effective transport alone is insufficient for high urban productivity. In France, where size does tend towards productivity, cities that under-perform, such as Marseille, Lille and Montpellier, do so despite well-developed transport infrastructure.

Indeed, very few European cities with listed populations above 500,000 lack public transport infrastructure as good as or better than Newcastle and Glasgow. We can extrapolate that other countries are much better than Britain at getting listed populations into city centres. Britain is uniquely bad at this; just as it is uniquely bad at achieving high productivity in its larger cities.


Britain is the only developed country placing de facto ceilings on working populations of its major urban areas. This forces economic activity into smaller pockets where more productive work is less likely to occur, and makes  the high productivity associated with high urban populations elsewhere nigh on impossible for larger, non-London, British cities.

Processes related to high urban productivity are happening in some bigger British cities. Manchester has a growing population, especially of young people and graduates in more central areas, where economic activity is increasingly concentrated. Productivity is rising and employment has grown more since 2010 than in any city outside London.

Yet it still under-performs its listed population. The failure to convert listed population into working population likely holds it back. Successful conversion may not be enough alone to create high urban productivity, but it is still a necessary condition for it.

Inevitably smaller urban areas will perform best when population cannot lead to productivity. Only relatively modest population sizes allow Bristol and Edinburgh to overcome their poor transport infrastructures.

Just as transport technologies such as canals and the railway characterised the industrial economy and the container ship facilitated its global spread, the current knowledge economy is the era of rapid, mass-transit, urban transport networks. Britain has failed to adapt to this era and its great cities – the engines of the industrial era – are being left behind.

Andrew Brook is a policy researcher and writer. He tweets @andrew_brook_ .

 
 
 
 

As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.


The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.