Geodemographics Blog

Paul Swinney: Centre for Cities, data and 100 years of urban economic change

Centre for Cities, data and 100 years of urban economic change

The Centre for Cities is a research organisation tasked with investigating the performance of UK city economies. Unsurprisingly data is at the core of what we do – if you can’t measure the problem then prescribing the solution is very tricky.

One area that has puzzled politicians for at least 80 years is the North South divide. And they have been trying to close it since 1934 (the first attempt was the Special Areas Act). The divides that we see today suggest that they have not been as successful as hoped.

Data at the local level is patchy, and what is available doesn’t tend to have much in the way of a time series behind it. This means that tracking performance of cities over a longer time period is very difficult to do. But using data from the 1911 Census allowed us to track, for the first time, the performance of cities over the last 100 years. This is what we found.

Cities in the South of England have seen much faster jobs growth than cities in the North. Cities such as Crawley and Reading are many times larger than they were 100 years ago. But some cities have shrunk – Blackburn and Burnley have close to half the number of jobs they did in 1911.

Figure 1: Growth in jobs, 1911-2013

fig 1

Cities in the South have tended to be more successful because they have reinvented their economies. They have replaced jobs in declining industries with jobs in more knowledge-based sectors. Meanwhile cities further north have replicated their economies – they’ve replaced jobs in one low-skilled industry for employment in another, swapping coal mines for call centres and dockyards for distribution sheds. The result is that they have lower average wages, lower career progression and a higher dependency on benefits than urban areas in the South.

Figure 2: The geography of knowledge, 2013

fig 2

On the whole, policy has attempted to aid replication rather than helping places adapt to the changing winds of the 20th century. It has focussed on preventing the decline of more traditional manufacturing, be that the Special Areas Act of 1934, the Brown Ban on offices in London and Birmingham in the 1960s or more recently George Osborne’s rallying call for the ‘march of the makers’.

If the economic divides seen across the country are to close then policy instead has to help cities to reinvent their economies. It must crucially focus on skills – cities won’t be able to attract high-skilled businesses if the workers aren’t available. Improving the attractiveness of city centres as a place to do business will also be important – our work shows that knowledge-based businesses are increasingly looking for a city centre location. And finally, it should look to deal with the scars of industrial legacy. The 21st century economy requires less employment space in a different part of town. This means that land remediation needs to be part of any policy response too.

As ever, the main output of our research is a full report, which you can read here. But as well as innovating with data, we’re also always looking to innovate with how we present it too, be that through Prezi, our data tool or graphics for social media. You can follow us on Twitter to keep up to date with all of our work.

In his role as Principal Economist, Paul leads on the data analysis undertaken by the Centre. He has a particular interest in research on the spatial development of city economies, private sector growth, and enterprise. His current work focuses on the role that city centres play in the wider city economy, the evolution of out of town employment sites and what this means for future economic growth.

Paul is a regular media commentator, including print, radio and TV, and has spoken at conferences across the UK on subjects relating to the performance of city economies.

Any views or opinions presented are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the MRS Census and Geodemographic Group unless otherwise specifically stated.

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