1. Economics
March 31, 2017

Which city is the UK’s start-up capital?

By Jack May

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

Flat whites. Beanbags. A ‘zen zone’.

You know what I’m talking about. Millennial-ridden, top-knot-sporting, entrepreneurial-spirit-embodying start-ups, popping up all over the place building new businesses, apps, technologies, solutions, and gargantuan fortunes.

Start-ups: they’re the cool new thing for a developed Western city to have, with YouTube ‘spaces’ and Google ‘creative zones’ taking up space from King’s Cross to Tottenham Court Road.

But though London hogs the spotlight, is it really the UK’s start-up capital?

Image: Centre for Cities.

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A simple look at the map of business start-ups per 10,000 people in 2015 shows that for the most part it’s quite predictable. 

London sits at the centre of a network of darker green dots – indicating higher densities of start-ups per capita – which almost universally thins out as it heads away in all directions; towards Norfolk, Exeter, Newcastle, and Manchester. 

But that isn’t an entirely fair picture. Doncaster flashes a reasonable shade of green, and way up in Scotland, Edinburgh looks like it’s doing not too badly either. 

Image: Centre for Cities.

And this does come through in the top 10: though London is far and away ahead, unlikely dribbles of outer commuter belt show up, too. Northampton had the second highest level of start-ups per 10,000 people in 2015, and Basildon – of all places – comes in respectably in ninth place. 

And then there’s Doncaster, in sixth. Ed Miliband would be proud. 

To look at the change in how start-up friendly cities are, too, is to see London’s total hegemony fade just a little. 


Image: Centre for Cities.

To take the actual change – as in the gross change – from 2004 to 2015 (the widest data offering available), Northampton surges out ahead. 

London, indeed, is left almost exactly on a par with Slough (come friendly bombs), and not all that far ahead of Doncaster. 

And there’s Edinburgh – plucky little Scots Edinburgh – coming in seventh place ahead of infamous ‘M4 Corridor’ powerhouse Reading. 

Image: Centre for Cities.

Looking at the relative, rather than the gross, change also knocks London off the top spot. By looking at the percentage by which the numer of start-ups per 10,000 people has changed, London’s growth actually looks a little sluggish. 

Northampton, Doncaster, Slough, Luton, and Glasgow all come in ahead. Edinburgh is almost parallel with London, and Middlesbrough, Liverpool, and Crawley follow not all that far behind. 

So even if London has the most start-ups in the country, perhaps it’s not doing all that well at encouraging and accellerating that start-up vibe that brings them all flocking. 

But of course, 2004 and 2015 are a very long way away from each other. Facebook was barely a thing then, ‘Brexit’ was the preserve of proper loonies, rather than socially acceptable loonies, and we hadn’t even had the crash. What a time. (Just don’t mention the War). 

Image: Centre for Cities.

Back then, the picture looked a little more diverse. Exeter, the South Coast, Bristol, Blackpool and the northern edges of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ all seem to be doing pretty well. 

Even Norfolk is sort of getting in on the action. 

Image: Centre for Cities.

But if you pick a year just after the crash – like 2010, for argument’s sake – you can see things are hunkering down. Those green dots have become more concentrated in the south, with the green dots in the Northern Powerhouse fading markedly, and places like Exeter and Cardiff trickling away.

London and its army of green blobs is out in force. 

So for some reason, something about the post-crash economy and the start-up world of Internet 2.0 (or the Internet of Things, I lose track) has tilted the balance in favour of London and the south-east. 

And as we’ve name-dropped the Northern Powerhouse in here, it’s worth also noting that Manchester – the supposed capital of Britain’s great future hub – hasn’t featured on any top ten list thus far. 

Go figure. 

Image: Centre for Cities.

But at least one nice thing is that you have to look really hard to see any evidence of start-ups actually draining away. Looking at percentage change from 2004-15, only nine cities seem to have seen numbers fall. Which, in the greater scheme of things, isn’t actually that terrible. 

You go, Britain. Out and into the world with your zen zones and start-up beanbags. 

Or something. 

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