1. Economics
October 14, 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 9:33am

How does the economy of Birmingham compare with similar cities?

By Jonn Elledge

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

So, here’s a cool thing you can do with the Centre for Cities datatools. (CityMetric cool, not actual cool. For actual cool you need to go elsewhere.)

You can pick any British city, and it’ll tell you which European cities it has most in common with, in terms of its size and industrial structure. The tool allows you to see how our cities compete at a European level.

And, long story short – not great.

Take Birmingham. It’s a serious contender for Britain’s second city, so all the theories of urban economics – the benefits of agglomeration and so on – suggest it should be one of our richer cities. But here’s what the Centre for Cities has to say about Birmingham’s economy:

In its group, Birmingham has a comparable GVA to its size, but its GVA per worker (a measure of productivity) is relatively low, and is ranked 263 out of the full 330 cities. It also has a relatively low-skilled population.

Ah well, 263rd place ain’t bad.

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Here’s a map of the cities Birmingham is most like:

Some of those seem a bit left field (Lille, sure, but Athens?). But they’re all of the same order of magnitude…


…and more importantly have similar industrial structures:

Click to expand.

Basically, these are large cities with diverse economies: a bit of manufacturing, a bigger bit of high-value business services, and a fairly large public sector.

But, now for the bad news. Birmingham’s GVA per worker – a measure of its productivity – is relatively low:

So is the proportion of its population ranked as “high skilled”:

It has a lot of low skill workers:

But not many patent applications:

There is one bright spot, though: low unemployment

It’s possible there’s a connection between this and the low GVA per worker: basically, we traded higher employment for lower productivity.

I’m going to do more of these posts, looking directly at how individual UK cities compare with their European counterparts. But I warn you now, this is going to be a theme – in far too many cases, the news is not going to be good.

There are more ways of comparing city economies on the Centre for Cities’ Birmingham fact sheet here.

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

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