Growing cities: invest now or pay later

Towns which were doing well in 1901 are still the best now; lack of progress is hard to turn around.

Investment in skills and infrastructure has a crucial bearing on the long run growth prospects of city economies. It did in the 20th century and it will in the 21st century. But the UK still falls well behind other countries, particularly the Nordic ones, when it comes to investment in education, and spend on transport has fallen sharply in recent years.

Centre for Cities latest report Cities Outlook 1901 provides new insight into urban economies at the beginning of the 20th century to understand how and why cities have changed, and crucially what policy makers can do to improve the prospects of cities for the future.

It tells us that history matters. Over the course of the 20th century the importance of major ports and manufacturing centres declined as the economy shifted towards services. Liverpool, once the UK’s second city, now ranks in the bottom 20 per cent for overall economic performance.

Cities are not prisoners of their past; urban economies evolve and adapt to changing economic circumstances. But this change often takes decades. Economic outcomes are the result of the complex interaction of many factors, from a city’s skills base and industrial profile to its links with other cities and the nature of global economic change.

Policy nevertheless has an important role to play. One of the most important factors in determining economic success of a city since 1901 was its skills base: towns and cities with higher level skills in 1901 have tended to do much better over the long run. This highlights that government needs to ensure the skills system is fit for purpose and continues to adapt to the needs of a rapidly changing global economy.

Whilst overall the gap has widened between the North and South over the 20th century, several cities have bucked wide spatial trends. Preston, Warrington and Swindon have seen their relative position improve dramatically. Investment in roads, railways, new homes and business premises facilitated the growth and diversification of these economies. And today these cities are some of the best performing in the country.

The overly centralised nature of governance in the UK further compounds the problem as cities have limited ability to respond in ways that reflect their economic history and unique circumstances today. The latest City Deals marks one of the biggest shifts towards greater devolution to cities but there’s still a long way to go.

The findings reinforce the importance of investing in the fundamental drivers of growth to get the UK firmly on the road to economic recovery and growth. The sad fact is though, while it has long been recognised, the UK falls well behind international economies when it comes to investment in these areas. Relative to GDP, Denmark invests 1.5 times more in education than the UK.

In the short-term, spending cuts on these key drivers of urban growth will stifle the UK recovery and cost more in the long run. The UK must invest now or it will pay later.

Tower Bridge, circa 1900. Photograph: Getty Images

Naomi Clayton is a senior analyst at Centre for Cities

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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