A history lesson in the future prosperity of our cities

St. George’s Hall in Liverpool was built in the mid-19th century. Liverpool was once the UK’s second city but now ranks in the bottom 20%

A look at the evolution of our cities since 1901 reveals clues about what helps a successful city endure, says Naomi Clayton

Global economic change affected the growth paths of all cities over the course of the twentieth century. Some more than others. For some cities the legacy of the past still overshadows their economies today. But the story of change in urban Britain also teaches us that cities are not prisoners of their past. The right investments can lead to big pay offs in the future.

Centre for Cities’ new report, Cities Outlook 1901, explores the evolution of cities across Britain since the turn of the 20th century. It reveals how and why cities have changed over the long run to inform policy for the future.

Cities are shaped over time by many different factors – the diversity of their economies, levels of innovation, migration and investment in infrastructure and housing – but successful cities share one particular trait – highly skilled individuals.

Seven out of eight of the best performing cities today had above average levels of skills in 1901, while eight out of ten cities with the most vulnerable economies today were in the bottom 20 for skills levels in 1901.

A city’s history has a strong impact on its future. Over the course of the twentieth century, as the importance of major ports and manufacturing centres has declined and the economy has shifted towards services, those cities that were unable to make this transition have struggled.  Liverpool, once the UK’s second city, now ranks in the bottom 20% for overall economic performance.

But while the impact of history is significant, the development paths that cities take are not pre-determined.  If we look back through history there are some notable examples of cities that have bucked the trend and performed well in spite of a bleak outlook in 1901.  Preston, Warrington and Swindon all benefited from investment in infrastructure that supported them to make the most of their unique advantages.

Swindon benefited from infrastructure investment including the building of the M4 motorway

Investment in the road network that came with the ultimately abandoned New Town designation enabled Preston to grow and diversify as a regional service centre. Warrington’s designation as a New Town built on the advantages of its location and connected it to the urban powerhouses of Manchester and Liverpool. Swindon’s strong engineering history combined with its improved connectivity as a result of the M4 completion, affordable business premises and local leadership made it an ideal location for high tech firms.

The different routes that these cities have taken to economic success reminds us that there is no magic bullet or single grand solution. Every city’s success story will be different. And this means that every city needs a different package of policy solutions to meet the needs of their businesses and residents.  This is why City Deals are a big step in the right direction.  The government should now look to negotiate deals with smaller, fast growing places like Milton Keynes and Coventry; and mid sized cities such as Sunderland that could use investment to update their city centres to make them a more attractive and productive places to do businesses.

The biggest lesson from the last century is this: the government needs to invest in skills and infrastructure now. If government can get this right, the investment will be more than repaid in years to come.


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