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Government / Local politics

Exports from British cities show the vast challenges we'll face in negotiating Brexit

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.

David Davis, our Brexiteering overlord extraordinaire, is in the business of negotiating our departure from the European Union.

Despite the fact that negotiations – led by David and his counterpart Michel Barnier – started only last week, they seem to have rather slipped down the agenda.

Admittedly, other things have happened, and we can’t expect the negotiations to ride top of the news agenda throughout the next 21 months or so until we actually get booted out of the EU in March 2019, but still: you’d hope we’d be able to sustain interest from at least the first week to the second.

In the long term, the key item on the negotiation agenda will be economics. Trade – and more specifically, exports – matter a great deal to us, and to our cities in particular.

If you were wondering about the subheading, here’s the explanation. Image: Getty.

The Centre for Cities has some useful data here that gives a brief summative snapshot of the UK’s exports that we’ll have to try to protect – and expand on – in our deals with the EU and the rest of the world.

The key metric is exports per job: the value of the things we ship out – whether in terms of goods (stuff) or services (er, services) – relative to the number of people working to make those exports happen. In a very perfunctory way, the higher the number per job for a city, the better it’s doing in the exports market. 

Without further ado, here’s a snapshot of the country.

There is no data for Belfast, so I can’t make any shady backhanded comments about the DUP, which is a shame.

To break it down further, the average value of exports per job across the country in 2014 was £15,690. Here are the cities around the national average:

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

Cities as diverse as Hull, Edinburgh, Oxford and Southampton all cluster around that average figure, accruing around £15,000 in exports per job.

But, as ever, it’s the extremes that are most interesting.

The least successful cities in terms of exports are, largely speaking, in the North. The value of exports per job in York is just £3,710; in Doncaster it’s £5,410, £6,680 in Wakefield, £7,420 in Barnsley, and £8,160 in Preston – to choose a selection of the bottom ten.

The bottom ten exporting cities. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

That being said, there are outliers here, too. Nottingham – hardly a northern city – exported just £5,770 in goods and services per job in 2014. For Exeter, which is about as southern as you can get, that figure was £5,940.

Exports in these cities are clearly struggling. Such low numbers suggest fragile trading ecosystems, that may be highly susceptible to stormy economic conditions as we struggle to whittle through the umpteen minute details necessary to survive Brexit..

At the other end of the scale, some cities are exporting like there’s no tomorrow.

London’s exports per job come out at £23,470, while commuter-belt hotspots like Aldershot and Slough accrue £24,660 and £27,560, respectively.

Given that the average salary in the UK hovers idly around the £27,000 mark, this is starting to look like very good news. If the value of exports per job can be roughly equal to the average salary for one job, something’s probably going well.

The top ten cities by exports per job. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

But those aren’t even the highest figures.

Worthing, of all places, clearly shows its worth (sorry) with exports per job of £29,640. Out on top, and ahead by quite a way, is Sunderland: its exports were worth almost £5b in 2014, which breaks down to £40,650 per job.

That moment when Theresa May rushed to comfort Nissan, in the first months of her premiership after the UK voted to leave the EU, suddenly starts to make sense. The firm’s plant in Sunderland is the UK’s biggest car-producing plant, and exports at least 80 per cent of all the vehicles it produces.

Who’s steering us through this Brexit, anyway? Image: Mario von Berg.

Paul Swinney of the Centre for Cities – and a Sunderland native – puts it in stark terms. “If you didn’t have Nissan and the supply chain, Sunderland would be the 12th lowest exporter, rather than the highest.”

And we’d be missing out on £5bn in exports.

More importantly, of course, if Nissan can’t export the cars from the UK easily, they’ll just go somewhere else to produce them. 

Most importantly of all, that will mean thousands and thousands of people losing their jobs. Which means thousands of devastated lives, hungry children, distraught families, and so on and forth.


Sunderland’s car factory, of course, is a world away from the vast pharmaceutical centre run by GlaxoSmithkline in Worthing, Britain’s second city for exports per job. What these figures show us is that the challenge faced by those making trade deals on our behalf is to secure trading systems that work as well for the cars of Sunderland as for the drugs of Worthing and the services of London.

And as much as anything else, these figures show what is increasingly clear about the UK – its divided nature. While some cities rake in billions from exports, others are barely breaking out beyond their own confines.

The deals we make as we go ‘out and into the world’ in the coming years face a formidable task: protecting the strong exports we already have pouring out of some of our cities, while trying to create the conditions for trade to flourish in the cities that have been left behind thus far.

It is impossible to overstate how high the stakes are throughout this process. 

Best of luck, David. 

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