1. Built environment
October 2, 2015

How did the financial crash affect the populations of Britain's cities?

By City Monitor Staff

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Citiesdata tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britains cities.


This week we conclude our exploration of how urban populations have changed over the last 30 years, and look at what happened after the crash of 2008.


We all know the drill by now, I expect. The last few years have seen the cities of south central England, the economic heart of the country, expand in population, in what we must assume is a function of boom. Meanwhile, places we still associate with old heavy industries – mining, shipping, manufacturing – have often shrunk, in what we must assume is a function of bust.


So, did the Great Recession that followed the financial crash shake things up at all? Questions to which the answer is no:

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But while the pattern is familiar, some of the details change. Here’s the bottom 10 (you can hover over the dots for more detail):

It’s mostly a list of our old favourites, in England’s one time industrial north: Grimsby, Burnley, Middlesbrough. Note that only two of these (Sunderland and Blackpool) have actualy shrunk. In most cases, these are cities that just aren’t growing very fast.


It’s worth noting, though, that none of the major cities are in here. Sure, there’s Birkinhead, which is part of metropolitan Liverpool; Rochdale is outer Manchester, Sunderland (this’ll get me in trouble) an adjunct to Newcastle.


But none of the big cities themselves makes the bottom 10 (Livepool, ranking 52nd out of 64, is the closest). This wasn’t true when we looked at the figures for the 1980s, and it’s a theme we’ll be coming back to.


The top 10 is largely the usuaul litany of southern new towns and university cities: Oxofrd, Cambrdge, Luton, Peterborugh, Milton Keynes. But there are some new entrants, too.

Coventry makes a surprising appearance at the top end of the growth table. Between 2008 and 2013, its population rose by 8 per cent. Between 1981 and 1992, by contrast, it fell by 5 per cent.


Edinburgh is another new entrant, which seems to have followed the same pattern. Between 1981 and 1992 its population actually shrank by around 2 per cent; in the long boom that followed it only rose by 5 per cent.


In the five yeas that followed the crash, though, it grew by more (6.3 per cent) than it had done in the previous decade and a half.


There are some parallels between the Scottish capital and the UK one, 400 miles to the south. Both are centres of finance and (in recent years, at least) politics. Both were shrinking 30 yeas ago, but have seen their populations grow at an increasing rate ever since.


In fact, if we switch from per centage growth to absolute growth we can see that all the biggest increases of recent years have happened in Britain’s bigger cities:

It’s tempting to draw lofty conclusions from this about our urban future, about how even in times of economic crisis these will be our most resilient job centres yadayadaya. And there’s probably some truth to that.


But it’s also the case that Britain’s population is simply growing, fast (something that makes us pretty unusual in Europe). You’d expect most of the extra people to be accommodated in existing urban centres.


Nonetheless it is striking that places that not so long ago were thought of as in decline – Newcastle, Sheffield, Coventry, even Manchester, the darling of the new economy – are now expanding to take in more people. Maybe the causation runs the other way – and a growing population will actually presage a growing economy, too. We can but dream.

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