1. Governance
August 11, 2016

Have southern English cities grown faster than northern ones? The answer may surprise you

By Jonn Elledge

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

Last week, as all dedicated CityMetric readers will recall, we looked at how the 62 largest cities on the British mainland* had grown – or not – between 1981 and 2014. After crunching the numbers on offer from our trusty Centre for Cities (CfC) data tool, and producing a whole slew of graphs, we came to two important conclusions:

  • There’s a mysterious curse of the dockyard, in which cities which grew around shipbuilding industries have picked up a terrifying habit of shrinking;
  • The smaller the city is, the more likely it is to have grown faster than the UK average.

But surely, a few of you wrote in to say, we were ignoring a big variable. Surely where a city is a factor here.

Well, yes, almost certainly. The north-south divide is never far from these pages. But we like to do things by the book around here, so let’s look at the same data by region.

First up, let’s check out what the CfC refers to as the “Greater South East”: London, the South East and the East of England. This is basically a broad interpretation of the London commuter belt, the richest bit of the country. When people at the other end of England are hating on “the south”, this is the bit they mean.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, a majority of the cities here have grown faster than the UK average (shown as a thick black line). Milton Keynes, the 21st century boomtown par excellence, has grown so fast that it breaks the graph, so here’s a version without it:

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What’s more, only a couple of cities ever dropped below their 1981 population. From a modern perspective, they’re not the ones you’d expect either: London, Oxford, Ipswich, Brighton.

Let’s move on. This graph does the same, but for the Midlands:

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This time, Telford – like Milton Keynes, one of the third and final waves of new towns – is way out ahead of the pack, and would be in the fastest growing group even if it was in the south.

The other Midlands cities, though, have been relatively slow growing. Three of them – Coventry, Birmingham, Stoke – spent over a quarter of a century with populations smaller than they had in 1981 (though they’ve all caught up with themselves now). And, of the eight cities shown here, five – slightly over half – have grown slower than the UK as a whole.

So, in the South East, most cities have grown faster than the UK as a whole. In the Midlands it’s about half and half. And in the north…

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Well, would you look at that.

Only two cities shown here have grown faster than the UK as a whole: Warrington, another new town; and York, which for statistical purposes often looks a lot like the more famous collegiate university towns in the south. (Preston, yet another new town, comes close but was overtaken in 2004. Huddersfield and Bradford are only slightly behind the UK average.)

In this group, indeed, there are a whole slew of cities that were smaller in 2014 than they were in 1981: Blackpool, Burnley, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Birkenhead, Hull, Sunderland, Liverpool… Most of those places were built around heavy industries which just aren’t there any more.

So. Yes, once again, the north-south divide obviously is a factor here. Population growth and economic strength aren’t perfectly correlated, for all sorts of reasons. But booming southern cities are clearly more likely to have grown than struggling northern ones.

This may go some way to explain last week’s results. Many of the smaller cities that have grown quickly are London commuter towns; many of the larger ones that haven’t are depressed northern towns.

There are the other regions, of course. I’m reluctant to draw too many conclusions from these just because the sample sizes are small, but, for the sake of completism, here are the graphs.

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The South West looks a lot like the South East (perhaps because it’s, y’know, the south). It might be significant that the cities which are most commutable to London (Bournemouth, Swindon) have grown most. Then again, it might not be.

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As ever, Scotland is beset by its own divide: Edinburgh and Aberdoon boom, while Glasgow and Dundee don’t. All four of them, though, have grown less than the UK as a whole.

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Last but not least, in Wales, Cardiff has grown a lot faster than the other two.

Anyway, the point is: the north-south divide is clearly a big factor in how England’s cities have developed over the last 30 years. I am shocked, shocked, I tell you.

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

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*The only Northern Irish city included in the Centre for Cities’ database is Belfast, and for various boring reasons of changing boundaries it’s not included in the population data. Ah, well.


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