This autumn the Government will publish its Levelling Up White Paper, which will set out how it intends to deliver on a slogan that has been the bedrock of its domestic agenda.

Several policies have been brought under the levelling up banner, but the lack of strategy for delivery or a well-defined purpose has meant that policy, so far, has been down to ad hoc pots of money and symbolic prizes, such as freeports and relocated Whitehall departments. So far, these actions have not matched the ambition stated in the Government’s recent Plan for Growth of having one internationally competitive city per region.

The Prime Minister has described transport as “one of the supreme leveller uppers.” Ensuring transport investment helps every place to reach its potential is necessary for achieving both levelling up and value for money.

This briefing examines whether intra-urban transport, particularly public transport, plays a role in the underperformance of British big cities and sets out the implications it has for the Government’s levelling up agenda. First, it looks at how transport accessibility varies across large cities in the UK compared with their Western European peers. It then analyses the drivers behind such differences, estimates the costs of poor accessibility and looks at how policies can advance levelling up by improving connectivity in the UK’s largest cities outside London.

Box 1: Methodology

Definition of a city

For the purpose of this paper, the Centre for Cities research focuses mainly on the UK’s nine largest cities outside London. Unless otherwise stated, here cities refer to Primary Urban Areas (PUAs), using a measure of the built-up area of a large city or town, which sometimes spans beyond the core local authority.

For the 38 non-UK cities analysed (from nine countries), Eurostat’s Urban Audit dataset has been used to provide the closest possible geography to PUAs. Urban Audit cities and ‘greater cities’ are defined based on population density rather than administrative borders, to avoid underbounding issues. The cities under analysis were grouped according to whether their population was below 750,000 (Bristol, Liverpool and Nottingham), between 750,000 and one million (Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle) or above one million (Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham), or whether they were mega cities (London). More information can be found in Appendix 1.

Data used for this research

This paper uses a number of public datasets. Population density is from GEOSTAT population grid for 2018 (Eurostat). Productivity levels for 2011 have been computed from Eurostat, INSEE ONS and ISTAT datasets. Currency and price adjustments were calculated by Centre for Cities.

TravelTime’s data on transport connectivity is used for public and private transport (see Box 2 for further details). Although connectivity is a broad concept, this report will solely focus on mobility to reach city centres. This means that the quality of other transport connections (eg, suburb to suburb) has not been considered.