How do cities trade with the world?

An analysis of the export profile of Britain's cities

As Britain prepares to leave the EU, our new trade report finds that services make up the majority of all city exports and examines how a goods-only customs arrangement might affect jobs and prosperity

Report published on 22 April 2019 by Matt Whearty

As Britain prepares to leave the EU, attention will turn to what trade deals it can strike with other countries around the world. These deals will have different implications for different parts of the country. Using new data released by the ONS, this report sets out how much cities export, what they export, and crucially given the current political situation, where they export to.


  • Cities account for 64 per cent of all of Britain’s exports.
  • The EU is by far the largest export market for every British city with 45 per cent of city exports being sent to the bloc.
  • Despite the size of other markets such as the US, these remain much smaller than that of the EU, which is more than three times larger than the USA and more than 20 times larger than China.
  • While exports are often thought of in terms of goods, services account for 57% of all city exports and they may face barriers in a goods-only customs arrangement.
  • Cities in the Greater South East tend to perform much better than those in the North and Midlands, and this tends to be driven by their strength in service exports.
  • Edinburgh, Cardiff and London are among the cities exporting the most services to the EU.

Read our earlier research on how British cities trade with the world

This report builds on the initial work we did on the industrial and geographical make-up of UK city exports in Cities Outlook 2017

Read Cities Outlook 2017


  • In the short term, policymakers should ensure that any UK-EU customs arrangement also covers services, or treat it as an interim stage until a more comprehensive arrangement can be formed which also allows businesses access to global talent.
  • To make the most of city economies and boost Britain’s productivity, trade deals will need to ensure they do not solely focus on one or two high-profile sectors but look more broadly.
  • Given the role of exporters in increasing productivity of economies, part of the Government’s efforts to increase Britain’s productivity will require a better understanding of why some places export so little.

Paul Swinney, Director of Policy and Research, highlights the key messages in the report.

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