A considerable challenge for the UK economy is the underperformance of its big cities. Unlike their European comparators, most trail far behind UK average productivity, and this drags down the productivity and output of the UK economy and the prosperity it generates. Centre for Cities estimated that this underperformance meant that the UK economy was £48 billion smaller in 2018 than it would otherwise have been, or 2.3 per cent smaller.1 It is for this reason that improving the performance of these places has become central to UK economic policy.2

This approach relies on the prosperity generated in the big cities to reach their surrounding towns and villages. Critics have sometimes labelled this as ‘trickle out’ economics,3 and have argued that it doesn’t work – the prosperity generated in the city, they claim, will stay in the city and won’t benefit the places around it.4

This briefing shows that the ‘trickle-out’ process does exist and does work – most big cities do provide economic benefits to surrounding areas, and policymakers should have confidence that improving the performance of these big cities will increase the scale and quality of the opportunities that residents in surrounding towns and villages have access to.

It looks at the eight largest cities in England after London – home to 13 per cent of the economy and 9.3 million people – and their relationships with the 6795 towns and villages – home to 5 million people – which surround them.


  • 1 Swinney P and Enenkel K (2020), Big Cities and Levelling Up, London: Centre for Cities
  • 2 For example, see: UK Government (2022), Levelling Up the United Kingdom: London: The Stationery Office; UK Government (2023), Spring Budget 2023, London: The Stationery Office
  • 3 For example, see Pike A (2018), The limits of city centrism? We need to rethink how we approach urban and regional development. British Politics and Policy at LSE accessed via http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/89115/
  • 4 A second criticism of the big city approach is the loss of agency – that places which were once centres of production, for example in coal or in steel, are now hitched to the fortunes of their bigger neighbours, which has potential knock-on effects around civic and community pride. The economic levers that the public sector has to pull to change this though are very limited, although there is an argument to be made about whether there are some powers that could be devolved to the very local level to give some control over factors affecting community and civic pride.
  • 5 This is an underestimate. The lowest level at which data on incomes is available at is the lower super output area. There are a number of instances where this unit covers more than one village.