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Understandably, most of the public and political debate ahead of the Scottish Referendum has been squarely focused on the tier of the nation-state. There have been some recent attempts to break down voting intention at a more localised level, but if we are to get a true picture of the factors in play in the impending result, or the possible consequences, we cannot overlook the picture on the ground in Scotland’s cities.
Scotland’s four largest cities – Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow – are crucial to the Scottish economy and the broader UK economy. They are home to 45 per cent of all jobs in Scotland, 51 per cent of all output, and 71 per cent of all knowledge-intensive business services jobs – those that drive the greatest economic growth.
It’s not only their scale that makes them economically important. Scotland’s cities are also more productive and sustainable than its non-city areas. The four cities produce 18 per cent more output for every worker than non-city areas, while they emit 44 per cent fewer carbon dioxide emissions per head than their non-city counterparts.
Nonetheless, there is considerable variation in the performance of these cities.
Historic capital Edinburgh is the most knowledge-intensive city economy in the UK, with a highly educated workforce earning good wages, and very few manufacturing jobs. Although half its size, Aberdeen‘s workforce is similarly highly skilled, and enjoy high employment rates and wages as a result. The city also punches well above its weight as a business start-up hub, with a large number of small and medium-sized businesses based around its thriving oil and gas industries.
As Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, is a both a mid-range performer on most measures, and a strong contributor to the UK’s overall economic output. However, the city lags behind on employment levels, meaning its claimant count is one of the highest in the UK, and the city also boasts relatively unaffordable housing. Due to its scale, and its particular economic challenges, Glasgow has stated that it identifies more closely with large English cities than many other parts of Scotland. Earlier this year Glasgow formally joined the Core Cities – a coalition of the UK’s largest cities – calling for greater funding flexibility, and matched its fellow members in successfully negotiating a City Deal with Westminster.
Dundee is one of the smallest UK PUAs, and one of the poorest-performing economies. Business start-ups and productive output are all well below the city average; over 12 per cent of its workforce have no formal qualifications, and unemployment and welfare dependency remain high. The city is home to one of the largest percentages of public sector employment, accounting for over 40 per cent of its workforce.
There is no doubt that each of these cities could stand to benefit from more targeted support and greater flexibility to fulfil their full potential. Like all UK cities, their significant differences mean one-size-fits all policy delivery will fail to respond to their specific needs, strengths and challenges.
Having fought hard for greater concessions, the big temptation for the SNP will be to keep hold of the extra policy powers that Scotland will inevitably receive in either Referendum outcome. But one of the least favourable consequences for Scottish cities on Thursday would be to have to go from begging in Whitehall to pleading in Holyrood.
It is clear throughout the world that cities have become the battlegrounds for economic success. This will continue to be the case in Scotland, whether it chooses independence or not. For too many years, successive governments in Westminster have failed to recognise the full capacity of the UK’s cities, if properly empowered, to drive national economic growth. Regardless of which way the vote swings next Thursday, Scotland now has a chance to build a new pathway to economic prosperity – one with its diverse and dynamic cities at its heart.
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