02Not all towns are well placed to access the prosperity available

Within the broad relationships shown above, there is still variation between towns. For example, around Leeds, Tadcaster has a much higher average income than Castleford despite the two places having very similar shares of people commuting into Leeds. The same is the case for Charfield and Churchill around Bristol, and Knutsford and Whaley Bridge around Manchester.

There are three main reasons for this. The first is the skill levels of existing residents, which influence their chances of gaining a high-paid job. Combining all the individual charts for the big cities into one and splitting them by the skills of residents (see Figure 6) reveals two insights:

  1. Towns and villages with a higher share of high skilled people have higher average incomes than lower-skilled places with similar levels of commuting into a big city.
  2. The relationship between commuting and incomes is much stronger for higher-skilled places than lower-skilled ones.

This underlines that, while being close to a successful city is important, it clearly isn’t enough to spread prosperity to a town or village – their residents need to have the required skills to access the higher-skilled jobs available in the city.

Figure 6: Towns and villages with higher shares of high-skilled residents have higher incomes than lower skilled towns with similar commuting patterns

The second reason is the ability of a town to attract in higher-skilled residents that work in the city but have decided to live outside of it. Measuring ‘quality of life’ in a place is not an easy thing to do, but using the share of properties in particular council tax bands as a proxy for housing quality gives some insight (see Figure 7). Using a similar approach to the one used in the skills chart, there is again a split in terms of housing, with one difference between towns with similar levels of commuting to a neighbouring big city being that towns with higher incomes have lower shares of housing in council tax bands A and B (the lowest bands and so generally the cheapest housing). A similar pattern is seen when using the crime index from the Index of Multiple Deprivation.

Figure 7: Towns with ‘better’ housing have higher incomes than those with ‘worse’ housing and similar commuting patterns

The third reason is travel times. As noted earlier, those towns and villages in the bottom left corner of Figure 1, such as Berwick-upon-Tweed, tend to be a long distance from their nearest big city, and the share of people commuting into the big city unsurprisingly increases as settlements get closer to the city. There are also a number of places that have varying shares of people commuting to a big city despite being similar distances away from it, with transport connections seemingly being a factor. But there are also counter examples to this, with places with good road or rail connections having lower commuting than places that are less well connected. Box 5 discusses this in more detail.

Box 5: The impact of transport connections on commuting flows

Transport links to a big city are clearly a factor in the performance of a surrounding town or village, but these links must be considered in the context of the other attributes of that place too. Two examples help illustrate this.

Chew Magna and East Harptree lie to the south of Bristol in the Chew Valley. The two places are very similar in terms of skills of residents and the nature of their housing stock, but Chew Magna is 11 minutes closer to Bristol. This is likely to be a factor in Chew Magna’s larger commuting flows into Bristol (see Table 1).

Table 1: Faster transport links to Bristol are likely make Chew Magna more attractive than East Harptree for Bristol commuters

Place Share of working residents commuting to Bristol, 2011 (%) Share of residents with a degree or equivalent, 2011 (%) Share of houses in council tax band A and B, 2023 (%) Travel time to Bristol city centre, 2023 (mins)
Chew Magna 21 42 10 24
East Harptree 16 40 8 35

Source: Census 2011; Valuations Office Agency; Google Maps

The case of Tamworth and Lichfield around Birmingham offers a counter example. Travel times into Birmingham city centre are 8 minutes faster from Tamworth than Lichfield. But the latter has higher commuting into Birmingham than the former. Looking at other characteristics shows that Lichfield has both higher-skilled residents and a much lower share of houses in council tax bands A and B. Improving travel times is undoubtedly important for commuting flows, but it isn’t the only factor at play.

Table 2: Other factors make Tamworth less attractive to Birmingham commuters than Lichfield, despite its shorter travel times to the big city

Place Share of working residents commuting to Birmingham, 2011 (%) Share of residents with a degree or equivalent, 2011 (%) Share of houses in council tax band A and B, 2023 (%) Travel time to Birmingham city centre, 2023 (mins)
Tamworth 17 17 63 28
Lichfield 22 35 34 36

Source: Census 2011; Valuations Office Agency; Google Maps