Receive our newsletter - data-led analysis, original reporting and insights
Economy / Jobs

Is a lack of skills to blame for the economic malaise in Britain’s secondary cities?

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

For the last few weeks, I’ve been using data from the Centre for Cities’ Competing with the Continent report to delve into a mystery about Britain’s cities. First, I showed that the big secondary cities were underperforming their European counterparts; then I looked at the structure of their economies in an attempt to work out why. (Key conclusions: not enough businesses, and not enough high value services.)

What I’ve not done so far, though, is looked at the bits of the data pertaining to their actual residents, so that’s this week’s job. Before we begin, though, a reminder of what we’re looking at. I’m focusing on urban areas which consultancy Demographia reckons have a population of a million people or more. To keep the data manageable, I’m only looking at the five biggest European countries (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain).

That gives us 19 cities:

  • Dortmund (Ruhr), Germany – 6,670,000
  • Milan, Italy – 5,280,000
  • Barcelona, Spain – 4,790,000
  • Naples, Italy – 3,700,000
  • Manchester, UK – 2,685,000
  • Birmingham (West Midlands), UK – 2,550,000
  • Cologne (inc. Bonn etc.), Germany – 2,165,000
  • Hamburg, Germany – 2,105,000
  • Munich, Germany – 2,025,000
  • Leeds (West Yorkshire), UK – 1,955,000
  • Frankfurt, Germany – 1,950,000
  • Lyon, France – 1,650,000
  • Marseille, France – 1,620,000
  • Valencia, Spain – 1,585,000
  • Turin, Italy – 1,530,000
  • Stuttgart, Germany – 1,395,000
  • Glasgow, UK – 1,235,000
  • Sevilla, Spain – 1,110,000
  • Lille, France – 1,065,000

Sometimes the city for which we have data doesn’t quite map onto the urban area it represents: Birmingham, for example, is standing in for the broader West Midlands conurbation. Also, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the skills data doesn’t cover Milan or Naples. This is not ideal, but hey.

Anyway, enough definitions, let’s look at a chart. This is GVA per worker – a measure of productivity – plotted against the percentage of the population that are classed as highly skilled.

Click to expand.

And it’s a bit of a mess. In Germany at least (the black dots) there seems to be some correlation between skill levels and productivity: those cities with more skilled people tend to have higher GVA. Continent-wide, though, that doesn’t apply, and the dots are all over the map.

This isn’t the only way to measure how well-educated a city’s population is, of course. This chart is GVA per worker plotted against the percentage of the population classed as low skilled.

Click to expand.

And here the pattern is much clearer. It’s not a perfect correlation – Turin in particular is an outlier, having high GVA despite a relatively unskilled population, and without data on other Italian cities to compare it to, it’s unclear if this exceptionalism is local or national. But generally speaking, if you want your city to be productive, you should invest in your population’s skills.

I’m wary of stating this too strongly, though, for one simple reason: people can move. Cities like Birmingham and Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow, produce loads of highly educated and skilled people (all have very fine universities, after all). The problem is that a lot of them tend to move out – to London, and a few other cities, where the jobs market is better and wages are higher.

These charts don’t account for this internal braindrain. It’s possible, indeed, that a big reason Glasgow has a relatively low-skilled population is because the most skilled and educated Glaswegians often move elsewhere: this data may reflect the symptoms of economic problems as much as their cause.

One more chart before we wrap up. This one is GVA per worker (yes, again) plotted against the number of patent applications per 100,000 people.

Click to expand.

Once again, Italy is playing silly buggers, and Turin and Milan both have high GVA without being particularly inventive. Generally speaking, though, the more patents filed from a city, the more wealth it produces. And on this score, Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham and Leeds are all – despite those great universities – rubbish.


So what have we learned? The problem with the big British cities outside London is that they don’t have enough high value service businesses, don’t have enough businesses generally, and aren’t filing enough patents. All of those things may be a reflection of the skills, or lack thereof, among their populations.

There’s another big way in which Britain’s cities are unlike those on the continent, which I’ll be looking at next time. In the mean time, why not have a play with the Centre for Cities “Competing with the Continent” database?

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.
This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.