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Britain's fastest growing cities are all in the south – and its shrinking ones all in the north

This is the latest instalment of our new weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

You know, we’ve got into a bit of a pattern with this series. “People talk about the north south divide,” we’ll say. “But when you look at the numbers, actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that.” What can we say, we’re as prone to repeating predictable narratives as any other media organisation.

This week, then, when we crunched some numbers and discovered that divide was still alive and well, it was almost a surprise – albeit not a particularly pleasant one.

This map shows the percentage change in the population of Britain’s cities between 1981 and 2013. (We chose those dates for no other reason than they were the earliest and latest on which data was available.) You can see the figures for any individual city, just by hovering the mouse over it.

The north-south split is already pretty clear, but it becomes even clearer when you go to the extremes of the league table. Here are the 10 cities which grew the most in those 32 years:

Not coincidentally, four of these cities – Telford, Northampton, Peterborough, and Milton Keynes – are “new towns”, designated by the governments of the 1960s as areas of growth. The largest of these has grown so much faster than the others that its lead on this measure is effectively uncontested.

Milton Keynes, the giant new town in Buckinghamshire, has only existed since 1967. In less than 50 years, it’s grown to become a fair sized city, with a population of 256,000, and between 1981 and 2013 the number of people who lived there grew by 103 per cent. The second fastest growing city over that period was Swindon: that grew by just 41 per cent.

Anyway, we’re getting off topic here. The main point to notice is that only one of Britain’s boom towns is above the line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash: that’s Telford, in the Midlands. All of the others are pretty comfortably within London’s orbit.

Now check out the bottom 10, all of which have shrunk. (Just FYI, every other city on this list has grown.)

Two in Scotland, eight in the north, and basically all of them once famous for heavy industry – docking, shipbuilding, manufacturing. This is economic change, making itself known through demographics.

In the name of completism, here’s one last map. This one is absolute, rather than relative, changes in population.

 

The individual cities at either end of the map are different (for obvious reasons, larger cities are more prone to numerically large changes in population). The north south divide, though, still very clearly holds.


These maps show a third of a century’s worth of change. It’s an entire generation, including three recessions and three booms.

So in the weeks to come we’ll be breaking this down a bit – to see whether the story changes at all when you look at shorter time periods. You lucky people.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.
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