Why does Britain find it so much easier to build transport between cities than within them?

Sheffield SuperTram. Image: Rept0n1x/Wikimedia Commons.

A few quick thoughts on a mystery, of sorts, I’ve been pondering for some time.

We know that, by European standards at least, most British cities have pretty poor public transport. We have good reasons for suspecting, at least, that this might be one reason why our big cities under-perform many of their continental peers.

And there’s evidence, too, that – if the point of investing in public transport is to improve city economies – you’re better off improving links within cities than between them. I’ve written about that before, but the basic argument is pretty intuitive. The reason poor transport is an economic problem is that it makes it difficult to get people from houses in the suburbs to jobs in the centre. Making it slightly easier to get from one city centre to another is a fat lot of use if people can’t get there in the first place.

And yet, time and time again, this latter is the problem that Britain’s Department for Transport seems most concerned with solving. The two big non-London projects on the table in recent years have been:

1) High Speed 2, a new north-south rail line which will improve travel times between other major cities and the capital, and so is a dubious candidate for the label “non-London project”;

2) High Speed 3/Northern Powerhouse Rail/Crossrail for the North, which will improve links between the cities of the M62 corridor, but won’t do much for the vast numbers of people within them who don’t live that close to a station.

Neither of these projects seems likely to solve the problem identified above. So what gives?

Pat of the problem, one suspects, is austerity. Budgets have been cut, and capital budgets most of all – so to be one of the lucky few to make it through the net major investment projects have to work very hard to justify the cost.

The easiest way to do that is to benefit a lot of people. In London, that’s easy, because there are a lot of people living or working in a very small space. In the rest of the country, though, it’s harder. A full-scale Leeds Metro network would serve, even in the most generous interpretations, a population of around 1m people. Building one, then, would mean spending an awful large chunk of the transport budget on a tiny share of the population.


There’s more. If the government were to pour significant cash into a full-scale metro network for Leeds, it is, let’s be charitable, unlikely that this would be received in Liverpool and Newcastle and Sheffield as a welcome investment in the wider north. Not unreasonably, residents of those cities would instead treat it as nothing much to do with them, and instead demand their own. Budgets being what they are, government is unlikely to deliver. So that shiny new Leeds Metro just annoyed far more people than it pleased.

Crossrail for the North, though, avoids both these problems. It’ll improve connections between cities with a combined population of perhaps 10m people: a whole order of magnitude more than our Leeds metro, so looks much better on paper. It also, by serving Liverpool and Manchester and Bradford and Hull, means that more people will see it as an investment in their area, and will support the proposal rather than whining about it.

Result: more people feel ownership of the project; fewer people complain. In other words, we’re chucking money at the wrong things, because they look like more people will benefit, rather than because they actually will.

I don’t really see a way a solution to this in Whitehall. The Department for Transport is a national body: by definition it has to manage competing interests, and the result, inevitably, is jam-spreading.

This to me seems like a very good argument for stronger local government with the power to make its own investment decision. A Leeds City Regional transport authority could focus on building a metro for the Leeds City Region, without having to pay the slightest attention to the existence of Hull.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m missing something. If so, do let me know.

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

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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

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook