1. Economics
December 1, 2017

What’s the matter with Sheffield?

By Jonn Elledge

I’ve been sniffing around this database looking for stories to tell for nearly two and a half years now. And one of the questions I keep coming back to is: what’s gone wrong with Sheffield?

Time and again, when trawling through the economic data, the capital of South Yorkshire comes out near the bottom of league tables. Check this out:

Sheffield is a major regional centre, at the heart of a metropolitan area of 1m people, and houses two universities. Nonetheless, it’s in the bottom half of the league table on business start-up rates and patent applications, and dragging along the bottom on business stock and GVA per worker (which, by this point, I am all but contractually obliged to explain is a measure of productivity).

This pattern keeps up if you restrict the field to Sheffield’s direct competitors. Of the eight English core cities, Sheffield has the worst GVA per worker:

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(That’s only £280 less per worker than Nottingham, but still.)

What’s more, this has been true for some years now. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also has the lowest wages…

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…and that’s not new either.

On a host of other measures not quite so bad, but still not great. It’s 6th out of eight on employment rates:

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And 7th out of eight on the ratio of public to private sector jobs:

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Here’s where it gets weird. On education levels – which are generally seen as pretty important if you want a vibrant economy – Sheffield is actually doing alright:

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Relatively few Sheffield residents have no qualifications:

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And it’s comfortably mid-table on those with degree level qualifications. In this it contrasts with Liverpool, a city with which it often competes for the bottom rank on the economic tables:

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What explains all this? Sheffield is far from the only English city struggling to bounce back from post-industrial decline. And it has plenty going for it, not least a relatively educated population and perhaps the most beautiful landscape of any major English city. So why is it finding it so tough?

My guess – and it is only a guess – Is it’s a largely a matter of infrastructure. Sheffield is not really on the way anywhere. Its trains to the capital use the Midland Mainline into St Pancras, rather than the faster East or West Coast Mainlines.

It’s also too far south to benefit from the main east-west routes in the main urban corridor of the north, and the Peak District National Park to its west, gorgeous though it is, makes it disproportionately difficult to get to booming Manchester, just 35 miles away.

Oh – it also, as I’ve noted before, twice, has terrible broadband. Throw in the fact it’s a multi-polar region with a relatively small population, and the fact it doesn’t get the tourist trade you see in somewhere like Liverpool, and the poor place seems destined to get forgotten.

But, as I noted, this is largely guesswork. If you have theories of your own, get in touch.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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