1. Economics
March 22, 2018

Which British cities had the best, and worst, 20th centuries?

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. 

This year’s Cities Outlook report – the Centre for Cities’ big annual survey of Britain’s urban economies – contains one particular map I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. And so, in the manner of an insomniac writing out her to do list for the next day to make her brain focus on literally anything else, I’m going to write about it.

I actually mentioned this map in last week’s datablog, but I sort of breezed past it, so today I’m going to look at it in more detail. It’s this one:

Click to expand.

That’s 105 years of economic change, from the coronation of George V to the Brexit referendum, all summed up in a single flat image. Green cities gained jobs, purple cities lost them, and the size of the bubble is proportionate to the percentage increase in change.

The results are pretty striking, in terms of both the assumptions they confirm and those contest. Some thoughts.

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Most cities gained jobs

The big one first: the vast, vast majority of cities shown here added, rather than last, jobs. By my count, there are seven losers against 52 winners. Most of the winners, indeed have added a lot more jobs, doubling or tripling their workforces.

This isn’t really a surprise: the population of the UK as a whole grew by roughly half in that period. Throw in the fact more industrialised economies tend to be more urban, and the way vast numbers of women entered the workforce in the 20th century, and you’d expect most cities to have gained jobs.

The message – that as some jobs become obsolete, others have popped up to replace them – is clear. But that doesn’t mean that job growth by itself is a measure of economic health.

Mills and ships were a bad bet in 1911

So what do the cities which lost jobs have in common? Here’s the list: Liverpool, Wigan, Blackburn, Burnley, Bradford, Huddersfield, Dundee.

Squint, and there’s a pattern there. Liverpool and Dundee were port cities. The other five were mill towns. All seven grew up around industries which were huge in the 19th century, but are tiny today. 

This pattern becomes even clearer if you consider some of those cities which saw job growth of under 50 per cent, too. Glasgow, Plymouth, Birkenhead, and Hull were also port cities. Barnsley wasn’t a mill-town really, but had originally grown around textiles and another industry which has gone the way of all flesh, coal. The decline of coal and ships probably contributed to the relative declines of Newcastle, Sunderland and Swansea, too.

That just leaves Stoke (pottery), and three bigger cities – Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield. The presence of so many of Britain’s big secondary cities in that list seems to explain much about the mess we are in.

The winners

So what about the other end of the table?

Many of the bigger apparent winners can be explained through specific and obvious factors. Aberdeen has boomed over the last 40 years or so as it became Britain’s oil town.

Then there are the new towns: Warrington, Telford and Slough, the biggest winner of all, with a 900 per cent increase in jobs. This, one suspect, is explained by the fact they started at such a low base, being little more than villages on 1911. (I looked in vain for Milton Keynes before realising it literally didn’t exist in 1911 and so isn’t on the map.)

The shift to the south

The biggest, if least surprising, pattern, though, is the shift to the south. Many northern cities have gained jobs; a few southern ones have lost them. Nonetheless the south east corner of the country is a sea of green in a way the north isn’t. The country’s economic centre of gravity has shifted.

One odd subplot of this map concerns the Midlands. Birmingham excepted, the region has done pretty well since 1911, including in cities like Derby and Coventry that may not feel that way today.

But this I think is a function of our starting point. Since 1911, entire advanced manufacturing industries like cars have arrived, boomed and then slashed their workforces. Start the clock at 1960, I suspect, and this map would look rather different.

You can read the whole of Cities Outlook 2018 here.

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

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