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.

Tower Bridge, circa 1900. Photograph: Getty Images

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.