1. Economics
January 30, 2017

Britain's city economies are “critically dependent” on the EU market for their exports

By Jonn Elledge

Last June, in case you’ve been in a coma for seven months, Britain voted to leave the European Union. The maps of the results look liked no political map of Britain you’d ever seen, with both safe Tory and safe Labour areas lining up on either side.

But one pattern was pretty clear: cities are less Eurosceptic than their hinterlands. Not all of them, and sometimes not by enough for Remain to get over 50 – but for the most part, Britain’s cities are more pro-European than the areas around them.

Click to expand. Image: CityMetric.

This has generally been credited to cultural factors: cities are more diverse, cosmopolitan and so on. But research out from the Centre for Cities today suggests that hard-nosed economics might be a factor here, too. Of the 62 significant British cities for which it holds data, all but one count the EU as its biggest export market: bigger than the US, much, much bigger than developing economies such as China or India. 

In fact, two-thirds of the cities surveyed (41, out of 62) send more than half their exports to the EU. Even the city where the share of exports to the EU is lowest – Derby, since you ask – sends a quarter. Obviously exports do not make up a city’s entire economy (all too often, in fact, they make up rather less than we might like). Nonetheless, these figures clearly suggest that losing access to the European market would be A Bad Thing for Britain’s urban economies.

This data comes from the Cities Outlook 2017 report. Published annually, Cities Outlook has historically looked at all sorts of different aspects of city economies. This being 2017, however, the only issue on the table in British politics right now is Brexit and its impact on international trade, so the headlines of the report focus on that. (Were I feeling more cynical, I’d suggest that the same is likely to be true of the 2018 report, too. And the 2019 one. And 2020. And-)

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The data in the report clearly suggest that any version of Brexit which impeded trade between Britain and the continent would damage Britain’s city economies, by restricting access to their largest market. But which cities would it damage most? Here are the 10 cities that are proportionally most reliant on trade with Europe:

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

It’s a fairly motley crew, mixing big cities like Bristol and Nottingham with small ones like Plymouth and Warrington. They’re a mixed bag economically, too, with rich Aberdeen in the same list as struggling Sunderland.


There’s no regional pattern either, or at least no easily explicable one: three of the 10 are in the south west (Exeter, Plymouth, Bristol) and two in south Wales (Cardiff, Swansea), but precisely none are in the south east, which is the region geographically closest to Europe.

One possible explanation for this is that the cities of that prosperous region are more successful exporting to other places (helped along by the convenience of a couple of major airports and so forth). That would mean that their trade with the EU could be high in absolute terms, but low in proportional ones.

Except there are only two south eastern cities in the bottom 10 (Reading and Ipswich) which doesn’t seem like great support for that theory:

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

Once again, they are, literally, all over the map: Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland; Telford, Coventry and Derby in the industrial Midlands, and so forth. 

The single city for which the EU is not its primary export market (I’m sure you’ve been wondering about that) is Hull. It still sends nearly a third of its exports to the EU (29 per cent; more than Derby). But thanks largely to its pharmaceutical industries, its main trading partner is the US.

In all, nearly half of the exports from British cities go to the EU – 46 per cent, which the report notes is

three times more than exports to the US, the second biggest market… and five times more than exports to India, Japan, Russia, South America and South Korea combined”. 

All of which means that it’s no good banging on about the benefits of trade with BRICs and tiger economies and so on. Those may one day grow to make up a bigger share of Britain’s export markets – but both history and geography mean that, for the foreseeable future, any sensible trade policy would prioritise access to the European market.

Which, sadly, we’re not likely to do. In a quote accompanying the research, the CfC’s chief executive Alex Jones says:

“Securing the best possible EU trade deal will be critical for the prosperity of cities across Britain, and should be the government’s top priority as we prepare to leave the single market and potentially the customs union. While it’s right to be ambitious about increasing exports to countries l such as the US and china, the outcome of EU trade negotiations will have a much bigger impact on places and people up and down the country.”

Which looks a lot like a diplomatic and apolitical way of saying: Bugger this up, minister, and it is really going to hurt.

Referencing the fact that different cities are exporting from radically different industries, Jones goes on to say:

“It’s also important that the government aims to reach trade agreements covering as many sectors as possible, rather than prioritising deals for high-profile industries based in a small number of places. Broad trade agreements for all goods and services will help every city to build on its exporting strengths.”

There is, of course, a way of maximising business’ abilities to export to Europe, in a broad range of sectors, that doesn’t involve picking winners. It’s called the European Single Market.

Still, never mind, I’m sure Exeter will be able to plug that 70 per cent fall in its exports in no time.

You can read the full Cities Outlook report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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