Why Warrington's good news is bad for Bradford

Transport links shown to be key difference between prospering and suffering areas
  • @NigelpMorris

As the last century dawned, the citizens of Warrington, Preston and Swindon were some of the poorest and least skilled in the United Kingdom.

Today their areas are among the country's top economic success stories, thanks to good transport links and a drive to diversify away from the heavy industries that flourished in the 19th century.

By contrast, Liverpool and Bradford – both key centres of the Industrial Revolution – have slumped down a league table that compares the fortunes of key British cities in 1901 with their current prosperity.

But the most dramatic change has happened in Hastings, which was booming when Queen Victoria was on the throne and is today struggling to attract jobs and investment.

A league table of the relative prosperity of 58 major British centres of population in 1901 and 2011 has been drawn up by the think tank Centre for Cities.

For much of the UK the picture has remained remarkably similar over the intervening 11 decades. At the start of the 20th century, there was already a distinct north-south divide in England, with London the country's economic powerhouse.

Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton and Bournemouth were all doing well, while life was rather grimmer in places such as Burnley, Rochdale, Barnsley and Wakefield.

According to the new analysis, seven of today's eight best-performing cities had above-average skills levels in 1901. And four-fifths of the cities with the most "vulnerable" economies in 2011 are ranked in the lowest 20 cities for skills levels at the start of the last century.

Beneath the surface, however, there are some striking changes of fortune, with Warrington climbing from 51st in 1901 to 11th today, Preston from 53th to 19th and Swindon from 55th to 23rd.

Warrington and Preston have gained from being designated new towns, helping to attract investment.

The reverse move has been made by Liverpool, which has dropped from 17th in 1901 to 46th, Grimsby, which has gone from 22nd to 50th, and Bradford, which has fallen from 13th to 44th. Hastings, which was ranked fourth in 1901, is 44th today.

Three of the four biggest fallers are coastal cities, reflecting a shift of prosperity over the century to inland centres of population.

Alexandra Jones, the chief executive of Centre for Cities, said the research suggested that improving skills made the biggest difference to the success of both people and places.

She said: "Warrington, Preston and Swindon were all able to thrive because the government invested heavily in infrastructure that linked them to major motorway and railway networks."

Ms Jones added: "If our cities are to deliver the growth we need in the future, the lesson from the last century is that government needs to invest in skills and infrastructure now."