Levelling up

The UK has huge regional inequalities

The UK is by some measures the most geographically unequal developed economy in the world. While cities and large towns in the Greater South East of England are among the most productive and prosperous places in Europe, most in the North and Midlands lag far behind.

The Government has set out its intention to address this inequality and ‘level up’ underperforming and left-behind parts of the UK through a programme of infrastructure development, investing in education, skills and scientific R&D.

How can we level up the UK?

Because the vast majority of UK economic activity takes place in the largest 63 cities and towns, they are crucial to the levelling up agenda.

Measuring ‘levelling up’

Elena Magrini

This briefing presents two new indexes to summarise and compare the performance of the UK's largest cities and towns. The findings have implications for policy, particularly the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Report 13 Feb 2020

The solution to levelling up the UK will be found in cities 

Unlike many other developed economies, the UK’s largest cities and towns do not become more productive as they get bigger. In Germany, France, and the United States, there is a positive relationship between city size and productivity, as measured by GDP per worker.

This relationship does not hold in the UK. A number of small cities, such as Slough and Swindon, are more productive than expected and, with the clear exception of London, most large cities are less productive.

Even after adjusting the size of cities to take into account people who commute into them for work, most of the UK’s large cities still underperform. Their underperformance affects many more people than the underperformance of small- and medium-sized places, and has much larger implications for the national economy.

Among those underperforming cities, if the eight largest closed their output gap, the UK economy would be £47.4 billion larger in total — equivalent to adding two extra economies the size of Newcastle to national output. Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow account for 70 per cent of this gap. For comparison, if all of the underperforming small- and medium-sized cities closed their output gaps, the UK economy would be £22.5 billion larger in total.

What needs to change

  1. Focus on the city-centre economy of big cities in particular, ensuring there is sufficient commercial space for business.
  2. Prioritise the improvement of skills of residents, with particular focus on improving maths and English skills for those workers lacking them, and improving school performance for the next generation.
  3. Improve the performance of the public transport network within and around the cities, using bus franchising powers where available, creating Transport for London-style bodies and investing in new infrastructure where needed.
  4. Extend mayoral devolution deals to cover big cities that currently do not have them, and extend the powers of existing mayors to at least match the powers of the Mayor of London.
  5. Negotiate multi-year ‘single pot’ budgets with mayors, giving them full control about how this money is spent in their area and the ability to plan over a number of years.

Our work on levelling up the UK

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