A study into city economies from the turn of the century to the present day has concluded that cities which invested heavily in infrastructure and skills are the ones that have enjoyed guaranteed success.
Cities Outlook 1901, by the Centre for Cities think-tank, compares how cities have progressed across measures such as population, employment and wages to identify how some cities have become more successful than others. The study says that skills are the most important factor determining long-term urban success. It says seven out of eight of the best performing cities today had above average skills levels in 1901, while 80% of cities with vulnerable economies in 2012 were in the bottom 40% of cities for skills levels in 1901.
However, the report also shows that investment in infrastructure and other drivers of growth have helped some cities with a lower skills base in 1901 buck the trend. It says cities such as Preston, Warrington and Swindon have progressed much more quickly than others.
Warrington, for example, has a much more highly skilled population now than in 1901, even though it was in the bottom 5% of cities for skills at the turn of the century. The report says that today, the skills profile of its residents has improved significantly and it now ranks within the top 20 per cent of cities for skills.
The study suggests this is because these cities benefited from investment in infrastructure, with two of them - Warrington and Preston - designated as new towns. A key element of that programme was infrastructure: roads, railways and homes. Where this was targeted effectively, it enabled movement of skilled workers between neighbouring cities and as the cities expanded they became more attractive as a business location.
Preston also benefitted from a piece of dumb luck in the 1960s when it built roads to a new town that never happened but when businesses were looking for land to build their offices and factories the infrastructure was already in place. Whether infrastructure precedes or follows development is a debate that continues to be waged to this day; perhaps Preston provides a clue.
Another piece of dumb luck for Preston was the delivered by planners who took too long to agree a city centre regeneration scheme and the developer pulled out. Consequently it still has a city centre unlike nearby Bradford which demolished a great swathe of the city centre to make way for a shopping centre that never happened. The resulting bomb site is one of Bradford’s most embarrassing mistakes.
The study also maps which cities saw the greatest change in terms of economic stability, skilled employment, the ratio of manufacturing to service level jobs and entrepreneurial activity from 1901 to 2011.
Brighton was ranked amongst the best performing cities in 1901 together with Bournemouth, Oxford and surprisingly Hastings with low levels of economic distress, high employment in the professional occupations, high services to manufacturing ratios, and high property values.
Together with Crawley, Cambridge and Oxford, Brighton is singled out in the report as continuing to be one of the best performing cities today.
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