Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics
Centre for Cities has published a wonderful report about the economic position of English cities in 1901 and the ways in which individual larger towns and metropolitan areas have changed in the intervening 111 years. The year 1901 is a fascinating starting point because it was close to Britain’s zenith as a world power.
In the period since, the Empire has gone, the US has become the single major global power (for the time being) and most of western Europe has de-industrialised.
Northampton was one of the most specialised places in 1901, with about 45% of the workforce working in shoe and boot manufacture. Sheffield’s steel factories employed more than 50,000 workers, while in Sunderland 20% of employment was in shipbuilding.
These cities, plus others such as Stoke-on-Trent (ceramics) and the Lancashire mill towns (textiles) were prospering as major industrial hot spots in the way Chinese cities do today. Seaside towns such as Blackpool, Bournemouth and Southend were immensely prosperous.
For a long period from 1801 to about 1914, the population of the industrial north and the Midlands grew in relation to the national total, with the south-east and east (outside London) declining.
Subsequently, the opposite has been true, with the ‘Greater South East’ overtaking the north and Midlands during the 1990s. Having said that, while Manchester has seen its population drop from 959,000 in 1901, the new Census data published on Monday this week shows the city with over half a million residents, up by 20% in a decade.
The report makes clear there were sharp geographical divides in 1901 and that London was already massive and dominant. Centre for Cities suggests that places that have done best over the past century or so include Warrington, Preston and Swindon, with Liverpool, Bradford and Hastings having declined most. Having a balanced economy and a good skills base appears to be linked with long-term success.
Britain has witnessed a sharp improvement in the condition of its cities since the mid-1980s. If we are to redevelop cities while preserving the countryside, it will be necessary to invest resources.
Tony Travers, Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics