The UK is one of the world’s largest economies, and a key destination and source country for foreign direct investment. Its cities each have their own industrial strengths, and in order – from the largest first – the 25 biggest cities in the UK are London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Edinburgh, Leicester, Coventry, Bradford, Cardiff, Belfast, Nottingham, Hull, Newcastle, Stoke, Southampton, Derby, Portsmouth, Brighton, Plymouth, Northampton and Reading. Here we profile each of them and look at the sectors in which they excel.
Population: 8.9 million
London is the UK capital and one of the most prolific cities in the world when it comes to attracting foreign investment. It excels in myriad industries, and his one of the largest global financial centres. The services sector dominated the city’s economy, however, and it is also a major tourism destination. London’s start-up scene is considered to be one of the most prolific in Europe, and it is also a hub for retail, media and professional services. London is estimated to generate approximately 22% of the UK’s GDP. The city also hosts some of the most prestigious universities in the world, as well as some of the busiest and most well-connected airports. London is also considered to be one of the main global contenders for Silicon Valley’s crown when it comes to the technology industry.
Population: 1.15 million
Birmingham sits at the heart of the West Midlands region, and forms a key part of the UK’s manufacturing powerhouse. The population of the Birmingham metropolitan area is as high as 3.6 million. While manufacturing and engineering have been the city’s lifeblood over the past few centuries – to this day it hosts plants for the likes of Jaguar Land Rover in Castle Bromwich and Cadbury in Bournville – Birmingham is a key European location for services, particularly in the financial industry. The likes of HSBC and Goldman Sachs have established major operations in the city over the past few years. Birmingham’s central location also makes it a key centre for logistics, with a canal system that is longer than its more famous counterpart in Venice. Much of the city’s industrial focus is now on industry 4.0, with companies such as Spain’s Iomob attracted to the city’s potential in integrated transport networks. Birmingham is also the host of the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
The largest city in Scotland, Glasgow has emerged from a period of post-industrial decline at the end of the 20th century and is now a force in advanced manufacturing, technology and culture. It metropolitan population is about 1.8 million, making up more than one-quarter of the total in Scotland. Glasgow hosts three highly regarded universities – University of Glasgow, the University of Strathclyde and Glasgow Caledonian University – and it holds the highest rate in the UK for retaining its graduates. It hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and was made a Unesco ‘City of Music’ in 2008. Manufacturing in general, and shipbuilding in particular, continues to be a key strength in Glasgow, while financial and business services, communications, biosciences, creative industries, healthcare, higher education, retail and tourism have become more prominent in the city’s economy over the past few decades. In November 2021, Glasgow hosted the UN’s COP26 event, which saw Scotland play a key role in the global drive to a low-carbon future, green energy and other ESG-related activities.
In western England, close to the border with Wales, Liverpool is a key UK port but its importance to the UK economy doesn’t stop there. It goes beyond football and music too, two other areas in which Liverpool is renowned the world over. Like many large northern cities in England, Liverpool suffered from unemployment and post-industrial decline in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly as its dockyards closed. In the 2020s, Liverpool’s industrial strengths are many, taking in public administration, education, health, banking, finance, insurance, tourism, leisure, film-making, manufacturing, research and development, life sciences and pharmaceuticals. The focal point of the region of Merseyside, Liverpool’s metropolitan population is 2.2 million. In 2008, it was the European City of Culture, an event that helped to transform the city’s image, which had been battered in the final few decades of the 20th century.
Bristol is the largest city in south-west England, and has for much of its history been considered one of the most prosperous urban areas in the UK. Bristol’s port has traditionally been the centre of its industrial activity, and it is still the tenth-largest in England today; however, in the 2020s, the city’s economy is based more around sectors such as defence, technology, financial services, creative industries, media and life sciences. It is also considered a national leader in the aerospace industry. The University of Bristol is one of the most highly regarded in the UK, and the city has a strong reputation when it comes to innovation, from research and development to quantum computing.
Manchester is one of the UK’s most famous and important cites. Its position in this list – a lowly sixth – doesn’t quite reflect this importance, but it should be noted that its metropolitan population (taking in parts of the greater Manchester conurbation such as Salford, Bolton, Stockport and Oldham) is closer to 2.8 million. Manchester grew exponentially during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, with its cotton industry forming the centre of the city’s economy. Although its musical output and football teams kept it globally relevant in the 20th century, the city suffered from post-industrial decline in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the 1990s, the city has undergone extensive regeneration, while its airport has become one of the busiest in Europe. The city has a strong reputation for advanced manufacturing and innovation, with the University of Manchester being where the atom was first split, where the first stored-programme computer was developed, and where the first graphene was isolated. It hosts the global headquarters of Umbro and the Co-operative Group, and the European headquarters of Brother, Etihad Airways, Kellogg’s, Adidas, Siemens and Totesport. Manchester is a UK logistics hub, and also excels in financial services, construction, retail, real estate, business services, public administration, education and health.
One of Yorkshire’s ‘big four’ cities in the north of England, Sheffield’s historic industrial strength was based upon the manufacturing of steel and steel products. While cheaper foreign competitors have challenged Sheffield’s global metallurgy supremacy, the city is still producing more steel than it ever has, and it is at the forefront of the UK’s advanced manufacturing industry. Sheffield lies between Leeds and Nottingham in South Yorkshire and boasts a metropolitan population of more than 1.5 million. Away from steel, the city has high employment levels in public sector work, while services and leisure activities also act as big employers. Tourism is a growing industry in the city and has been the setting for numerous films and TV series over the past few decades, most notably The Full Monty.
Leeds sits in the heart of the West Yorkshire region in the north of England, and often vies with Manchester for the title ‘the capital of the north’. Leeds is located in close proximity to Bradford. The combined population of the Leeds-Bradford conurbation is close to 1.5 million and the biggest flows between any two cities in the UK on any day is between Leeds and Bradford. Leeds is widely considered to have been one of the UK’s most prosperous cities in the post-Second World War period, as it moved quicker than most of its northern peers to counter the decline of the clothing industry it was built around in the 1970s. The city has since become a hub for the media (it hosts the headquarters of Channel 4), and its diverse economy hosts a vast financial and services industry. It remains a hotbed for manufacturing (mainly engineering, printing and publishing, food and drink, chemicals and medical technology), and it also thrives in areas such as law, gaming, tourism and retail. It is also a key location for public sector bodies in the UK, playing host to large operations from the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England, the Care Quality Commission, NHS Digital and Public Health England.
The capital city of Scotland, Edinburgh is a major tourism and culture destination within the UK, as well as the location of some of the country’s most highly regarded universities. It is also a major European financial services centre, hosting the headquarters of big global players such as RBS and TSB. Its public sector operations employ a large number of people, while Edinburgh is also a major UK retail haven. Other sectors that thrive in Edinburgh are technology, software and gaming, publishing and printing, and brewing. Its metropolitan population is just over 900,000.
Leicester is the largest city in the East Midlands region of England, and sits within close proximity to other major locations such as Birmingham, Nottingham, Derby and Coventry. With a metropolitan population of more than 800,000, the city has many industrial strengths and was famously the home of crisp manufacturer Walker’s (since taken over by PepsiCo). However, the city was built around the textiles industry, with many major clothing manufacturers still active in the city. Continuing the tradition of Walker’s, food manufacturing still contributes significantly to Leicester’s economy, while the city also excels in engineering, financial services and retail. The city’s close proximity to many of the UK’s major motorways and East Midlands Airport means it is a rising e-commerce hub.
Coventry is in the process of something of a reinvention in the 21st century, capped by it being the UK’s City of Culture for 2021. It image problem was established in the 1980s, when the Specials, who hail from the city, recorded the hit song Ghost Town, which was meant to reflect the decay across all UK urban areas but seemed to become synonymous with Coventry, which had suffered from a horrendous blitz in the Second World War, and then saw its once-thriving automotive industry decimated in the intervening years. The city’s expertise in automotives and engineering are standing Coventry in good stead in the 21st century, however, and its former nickname ‘the Detroit of England’ still holds some resonance. Plans for a gigafactory in Coventry to build batteries for electric cars were approved in February 2021, and more widely the city has become a test bed for autonomous vehicles and sustainable transport.
While Bradford has perhaps fallen into the shadow of nearby Leeds in the past few decades, the city still has many economic strengths. At the beginning of the 20th century, Bradford was known as ‘the wool capital of the world’, and as a result of the wealth in the city from this trade, it also went by the nickname ‘the champagne capital of England’. However, like so many other northern English cities, Bradford experienced economic decline in the 1970s and 1980s. The city has since been playing to its old strengths – the textile industry is still a large employer in Bradford, and its history as an innovator in the world of film saw it named as the first Unesco City of Film in 2009 – as well as undergoing something of a reinvention in the 21st century, blossoming in fields such as finance, chemicals, retail, manufacturing and engineering. It hosts the headquarters of supermarket chain Morrisons, consumer finance company Provident Financial and utility company Yorkshire Water. The combined population of the Leeds-Bradford urban area numbers almost 1.5 million.
Cardiff is the capital of Wales, and is also the largest city in the principality. It boasts a young, educated workforce and has been acquiring a stellar reputation for its quality of life since the turn of the millennium. Cardiff’s growth in the 20th century can be attributed to the city’s nearby coal mines, and the role it played in helping to transport the commodity around the world. However, since the mines closed in the decades following the Second World War, Cardiff reinvented itself as a business and financial services sector-driven economy with information and communications technology, creative industries and tourism also becoming important in the city. It is also the centre of Wales’s media industry, and through the Principality Stadium the city hosts many large sporting events every year. Cardiff’s metropolitan population, taking in nearby Newport, exceeds one million people.
Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland, became synonymous with the violent ‘Troubles’ era in the 1970s and 1980s, which was only ended by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Since then, the city has reinvented itself, with both Belfast and Northern Ireland becoming hubs for foreign direct investment. Developments such as the impressive Titanic Quarter act as figureheads for the improvements made to the city, which for many years made headlines for little more than terrorist activity. In the 21st century, Belfast’s economy excels in aerospace, the service sector, data journalism, tourism (based in no small part around the city’s historic shipyards that famously built the Titanic) and a blossoming film industry (Games of Thrones being filmed mostly in Northern Ireland). While the final Brexit deal has resulted in some uncertainty in Northern Ireland, hopes in Belfast are that the city can leverage its position betwixt the EU and mainland UK to its advantage.
Nottingham in the East Midlands region of England was initially built around the lace industry, although it is more globally known as the central location of the tales of Robin Hood (which continues to be a fertile tourism draw for the city, along with its historic pubs). Its metropolitan population, incorporating nearby Derby, is more than 1.6 million. Nottingham has long been known for its innovation and business prowess – HP Sauce was invented in the city, and it was where chemist Boots was founded. In the 2020s, however, the local authorities are targeting low-carbon technologies, digital media, life sciences, financial and business services, and retail and leisure as areas of growth. The Queens Medical Centre in the city is one of the three largest hospitals in the UK. As with other cities in the East Midlands, Nottingham is emerging as a key location for e-commerce distribution.
On the east coast of England, Hull rose to prominence as one of the busiest ports in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, for both cargo and fisheries. The fisheries industry died off in the 1970s as a result of the ‘Cod Wars’ with Iceland, leading to socio-economic decline in the city, but since the turn of the century it has undergone something of a resurgence. Hull has a strong background in pharmaceuticals and R&D – it is where both Smith & Nephew and Reckitt (of Reckitt Benckiser Group fame) were founded – but it branched out to become a major player in the wind power industry in 2013 when Siemens announced a major investment in the city. It was also the UK City of Culture in 2017, adding to the feel-good factor. Another area of industrial specialism in Hull is manufacturing (caravans and Yorkshire puddings are two of Hull’s niches), although its university is now churning out graduates in STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at a record rate. Hull also has a prestigious history when it comes to innovation, with Venn diagrams, liquid crystal display units and consumer products such Dettol and Lemsip first seeing light within the city’s boundaries. Hull has announced plans to establish a cruise ship terminal. Its metropolitan population numbers almost 600,000.
The phrase ‘taking coals to Newcastle’ is a popular idiom to describe something pointless. It also references the industry the north-eastern city was built around (along with shipbuilding). Both are largely absent from Newcastle’s economic make-up in the 21st century, but the city has established itself in other areas. Office, service and retail employment now dominate in the city, but beyond this it is a rising hub for investment in the biotechnology and life sciences, while the wider North East region is a major destination for automotives, and nearby Blyth is slated to be the site for the UK’s first battery gigafactory. The North of Tyne area is emerging as a serious UK player in green energy, particularly offshore wind. The metropolitan population of Newcastle (which is Tyneside and Wearside combined) is approximately 1.65 million.
Stoke-on-Trent sits in the north-west midlands area of England and was mostly built around the potteries industry. Its businesses based around ceramics, along with steelworks and collieries, suffered in the post-industrial decline of the 1970s and 1980s, however, leaving Stoke with a gap to fill. While a scaled-down pottery industry is still very much evident in the city, it has also branched out into the services sector, gambling (Bet365 was founded in Stoke), advanced manufacturing, engineering and logistics. Jaguar Land Rover, JCB, Michelin and General Electric are just some of the companies with operations in or around the city, which has a metropolitan population of 680,000.
Southampton sits on England’s south coast, and is famous for being the starting point for the Titanic’s last fateful journey. The maritime industry still plays a large role in the city’s economy, hosting the most prominent port in the UK for cruise ships and the largest freight port on the coast of the English Channel. Associated British Ports has a large presence in Southampton, as does map-maker Ordnance Survey. Southampton is considered a key city within the UK when it comes to supply chains covering myriad industries. Its metropolitan population (taking in the whole of south Hampshire, including the city of Portsmouth) is more than 1.5 million.
Derby sits in the East Midlands and has spent decades cultivating a reputation for excellence in aerospace, engineering and advanced transport manufacturing, attracting the likes of Bombardier, Toyota and Rolls-Royce through its skilled workforce and enviable reputation. Elsewhere, the city’s economy performs well for manufacturing and technology (with video game development a particular speciality, being the home of the Tomb Raider series). Its metropolitan population, incorporating Nottingham just along the A52, is just over 1.6 million. Along with the rest of the East Midlands, Derby is emerging as a key location for e-commerce distribution.
Located on England’s south coast, Portsmouth is renowned in the UK for its rich naval tradition, and the Navy acts as a huge employer in the city. Its Historical Dockyard attracts millions of tourists every year (along with the Gunwharf Quay retail development), although its docks are still a key hub of import and export activity (65% of all the UK’s bananas come through Portsmouth) and are vital to the UK’s logistics industry. Away from the waterways, Portsmouth thrives in areas such as ICT, financial services and manufacturing (namely aerospace, environmental tech and advanced manufacturing). It is also making a strong play in the renewable energy arena. Portsmouth sits within the south Hampshire metropolitan area, which has a population of more than 1.5 million.
Brighton is one of the UK’s best-known seaside resorts, and in recent years has become a haven for those seeking an alternative lifestyle. It is the only city in the UK, for example, to return an MP from the Green Party at a General Election. Befitting a ‘seaside town’, much of Brighton’s economy is based around tourism and retail, but away from the candy floss and ice-cream, financial services (it houses American Express’s European headquarters), conferences, new media and real estate are prominent employers in the city. The metropolitan population of the Brighton-Worthing-Littlehampton area is approximately 620,000. Brighton sits on a rail line that has direct and fast links to London, which lies about 100km away, and the two cities are linked by the M23 motorway.
Plymouth is a coastal city in south-west England, and its economy is traditionally linked to maritime activities. It initially grew as a shipping port exporting tin, copper and other locally mined materials. In 2022, it has regeneration plans based around boosting its retail offering and building a cruise terminal, which will boost an economy otherwise based around marine operations and engineering, environmental sciences, beverages (mainly gin), creative industries (particularly digital) and advanced manufacturing. Its key role as the starting point for many of the original Western settlers in the New World of the Americas (it is the city from which the Mayflower set sail) means that the city is a popular tourism destination. Its metropolitan population is just under 350,000.
Northampton is located in the southern midlands area of England, and its economy was traditionally built around the shoe industry (to the point where its football team is more commonly known by its nickname the ‘Cobblers’) and leather-making. It is situated 100km from London and 80km from Birmingham. Few of its shoe factories remain active, but since the Second World War Northampton has excelled as a destination for engineering companies, financial services and drinks manufacturing. Northampton is the county town of Northamptonshire, which has a population of just under 750,000.
Reading sits within London’s commuter belt (a 25-minute train journey away), but in recent years has done a good job of making its own voice heard. This has seen it attract headquarters of varying descriptions from Microsoft, Oracle, Hibu (formerly Yell), Prudential, PepsiCo and Wrigley, and other operations from the likes of Cisco, Huawei, Ericsson, Verizon Business and Symantec. Such activity has seen Reading establish a reputation as both a hub for foreign investment in general in the UK but specifically within the ICT sector. It also plays a strong card when it comes to attracting professional services names (Grant Thornton, EY, PwC and Deloitte are present in the town). When it comes to culture, the annual Reading Festival is one of the most popular music events in Europe. However, Reading’s attraction for commuters into London – with its steady transport links and cheaper housing – is always going to be a big part of its draw.
All figures for England and Wales are based on Office for National Statistics estimates from 2017, for Scotland from 2016, and for Belfast the number comes from the 2011 census.
This article originally appeared as part of Investment Monitor‘s Future of British Cities series.