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How does the north of England compare to the Ruhr or the Randstad?

Last week, we ran this important and informative article asking whether it made more sense to think of the M62 corridor in England’s north as a single metropolitan region. In it, as an aside, we noted that the region had incredibly low population density compared to London.


On Twitter, some readers responded to this by pointing out that this was not an entirely fair comparison. “What’s the equivalent density of the Ruhr?” asked Doug Burgess. “Or the Randstad?”

Those are good questions. We didn’t know. So, being the responsive sort of website that we are, we decided to find out.

The Ruhr, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is a multi-centred conurbation in western Germany, whose main cities include Dortmund and Essen. It’s part of the wider Rhine-Ruhr region, which includes other nearby cities like Bonn, Dusseldorf, Koln and (our personal favourite) Wuppertal.

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And there are certain parallels with England’s northern belt. It’s an area full of medieval trading cities, which grew rapidly and merged into one another as the region became the heart of Germany’s industrial revolution. 

Unlike the M62 corridor, though, it’s still seen as an economic powerhouse. Its cities remain home to the headquarters of multinational companies including E.ON, ThyssenKrupp and Hochtief, and it accounts for nearly 15 per cent of the national economy. 

Understandably, then, the Rhine-Ruhr often pops up in discussions as a useful model for the north of England. Here’s a map:

Source: Landesentwicklungsprogramm, 1995.

The Randstad, meanwhile, is another multi-centered conurbation, occupying a large chunk of the Netherlands, and containing basically every Dutch city you’ve ever heard of (Rotterdam, Haarlem, Utrecht, The Hague). Unlike the Rhine-Ruhr, or the M62 corridor (which we really need to agree a decent name for, by the way), it also contains the national capital, Amsterdam, and on some measures accounts for nearly half of the Dutch population.

Source: Jeroenvrp/Junuxx/Wikimedia commons.

Anyway – the thinking behind the whole Northern Powerhouse policy is that cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield will be stronger economically if we start treating them like part of a greater whole. Comparing that whole to the Rhine-Ruhr or Randstad thus makes a certain amount of sense.

So, here’s how they stack up.

As ever, direct comparisons are difficult: we’re comparing figures gathered by different agencies in different ways. Nonetheless, you can instantly see that the Rhine-Ruhr region is a giant compared to England’s northern belt, with the Randstad somewhere in between.

Here’s what happens when you look at population density.

The Randstad is relatively rural: its cities form an arc surrounding the “Groene Hart” (“Green Heart”) at its centre. Of the others, though, it looks like the M62 belt might actually be slightly more densely populated than the Rhine-Ruhr. Admittedly, that could be a result of the way boundaries are drawn – but nonetheless, there is a link between population density and economic activity, so that bodes well, right?

A quick note on methodology here. For the following graphs we’re using figures from Eurostat, an EU statistical agency which uses a smaller definition of the Randstad with only around 4m inhabitants. What’s more, we’re comparing 2006 population figures with 2010 GDP ones, because those are the only ones we could find. (Sorry.) It’s not ideal, and the inconsistency of this data probably warps the results a little. Nonetheless, with all those caveats, here’s what you get.

So. The Randstad is richer than the country that surrounds it. Possibly not by as much as this graph implies (again, we own up to the limits of our data), but almost certainly a bit richer. That’s not surprising, since the region contains most of the Netherlands’ major cities: you’d expect it to take a disproportionate share of the national economy, too.

The Rhine-Ruhr also outperforms the wider German economy, but by a much smaller margin – a reflection, perhaps, of the strength of other German cities, and the fact the national economy is much more evenly spread.

England’s north, meanwhile, is massively underperforming against the country at large – partly because of the ludicrous dominance of London and its hinterland, but partly because of genuine economic weakness.

On the off chance that you ever wondered why the government was making such a big thing about its “Northern Powerhouse” agenda, this is why.

Sources: Randstad Monitor, Eurostat Urban Audit, Eurostat economic statistics.
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