1. Economics
May 23, 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 10:56am

Liverpool’s economy has grown quicker than you think – but what’s the matter with Leeds?

By Jonn Elledge

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. 

A couple of weeks back in this slot, I made a shocking discovery. Since 1998, measured on the size of the economy as a whole, the fastest growing non-capital among Britain’s major cities had been Liverpool. This result runs so against the received wisdom that I dedicated a second article entirely to exploring possible explanations for the disparity.


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There was one possibility I didn’t explore in that last post, however: that it was simply a quirk of starting the clock when I did. Perhaps judging cities on the size of their economies, relative to the same figures in 1998, produced misleading results.

So, let’s run the numbers again. This time, though, we’re going to start the numbers in 2007, the last year of the good times, before the financial crisis and austerity and all that it wrought.

Let’s play our game.

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First thing to note: that Liverpool result wasn’t a fluke. There’s a huge bounce into 2009, which suggests that the 2008 European Capital of Culture award may have been a big help to the city. But while it falls back as the crash beds in and austerity bites, it’s growing strongly again from 2020, and ends the chart in fourth place. By 2016, its economy had grown by more than a quarter.

What of the rest? It won’t surprise anyone to see that London is in first place, or that Bristol – the only other southern English city listed – is running it close. Both economies have expanded fairly steadily (although I’d love to know what happened in Bristol in 2014). The great recession barely touched them, and the western city has probably benefited, too, from people and jobs getting priced out of the capital.

As to the other national capitals, Edinburgh had a wobble in 2009-10, but bounced back fairly strongly. With Cardiff the story is more interesting. Viewed in terms of its progress since 1998, its economy is one of Britain’s star performers. Starting the clock later, though, and we can see it had a tough recession, and its economy took several years to get back to its 2007 value.

Britain’s largest cities outside London, Manchester and Birmingham, are in the middle of the pack. The former has expanded fairly consistently, if unimpressively; the latter had a harder crash but a stronger rebound. Both those things probably fit with what we already knew about them.

It’s at the bottom of the league table that the other surprise lies: the cities of Yorkshire are in trouble.

It’s no shock that Sheffield should be pulling up the rear – it’s consistently the most economically troubled of Britain’s major cities, struggling not just with industrial decline but also poor infrastructure and physical isolation.

The sluggish growth in Leeds is more unexpected. For much of the 20th century, it was the richest of the big northern cities – but it’s clearly in relative decline.

Why this should be, I have no idea. It can’t be the absence of a metro mayor as these figures pre-date them. Poor transport – the inability to link people to jobs – might be a factor, but that’s probably my own prejudices speaking. Got a clue? Write in.

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

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