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.

There have been a number of policies badged under the levelling up banner, but the lack of well-defined purpose and strategy for delivery has meant that policy so far has boiled down to ad-hoc pots of money and symbolic prizes for certain priorities, such as freeports and civil servant relocations. In particular, these actions have not matched the Government’s stated ambition in its recent Plan for Growth to have one internationally competitive city per region.1

This briefing uses the idea of economic complexity to show how different parts of the UK economy have developed over the last 40 years and sets out the implications for the Government’s approach to its levelling up agenda.

It first looks at how complexity varies across urban Britain, revealing Britain’s most and least complex cities and large towns; this paper also compares British cities with their French and German peers. It looks at how this has changed over time, using data from 1981 to show how the geography of complex activities has changed over the last 40 years. The observed changes provide evidence about which places have the highest ‘productivity potential’ and how levelling up should realise this.

Box 1: Methodology

Definition of a city

Centre for Cities research focuses on the UK’s 63 largest towns and cities. Unless otherwise stated, cities and large towns are defined as 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 of a city. Due to data availability, Belfast is not included in this briefing.


Data used for this research

This paper uses a number of publicly available datasets. These include the employment at the local authority level by industry from the 1981 Census (‘1980 Standard Industrial Classification, 4-digit’) and the UK Business Register and Employment Survey (BRES) for 2019 (‘2007 Standard Industrial Classification, 3-digit’). Productivity levels for 2019 shown in the report are computed from ONS’s Regional Gross Value Added (GVA) dataset and employment numbers from BRES.

Other sources include France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (Insee), and German Federal Statistics Office (Destatis).


  • 1 Her Majesty’s Treasury, (2021) Build Back Better: Our Plan for Growth