1. Governance
September 25, 2015

Which cities grew most during Britain's 15 year boom – and which didn't grow at all?

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. 

This week we continue our exploration of how urban populations have changed over the last 30 years, by looking at which cities grew, and which cities shrank, during the long boom between the recession of the early 1990s and the financial crash of 2008.

The story so far. Since the dawn of the Thatcher era, in news that will surprise almost nobody, the population of many of Britain’s industrial cities has declined or flatlined; these, mostly, are in the north. Meanwhile, the population of those with big service industries, especially new towns, has expanded; these, mostly, are in the south.

More surprisingly, and more depressingly, those which started shrinking in the 1980s haven’t really recovered since

The eighties was a particularly difficult decade though. After the early nineties recession, the economy tuned around, and went through an unprecedented 15 year expansion. And Britain’s population growth rate started ramping up, too.

So – what happened to its cities then? 

Well, this happened then. These are the figures showing the difference in population between 1992, the year of the Black Wednesday crash, and 2008, the year of the credit crunch. (There is a risk of oversimplification here, but we have to draw the line somewhere.) As ever, darker colours mean faster growth:

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It’s dangerous to assume there’s a perfect correlation between economic strength and population growth: there isn’t. 

But nonetheless, when looking at the pattern here, it’s hard to completely ignore the economic implications. Cities in the affluent south are more likely to have expanded during the long boom. The only city north of the Wash in that darkest shade of green is York. 

Here’s the top 10:


It’s a similar list of cities to the ones that were grew most in the 1980s. Several old favourites – Crawley, Oxford, Peterborough, Milton Keynes – are back once again. But there are some new additions, too.

One is Cardiff: it’s not immediately obvious why, but during the boom years it did acquire both the Welsh Assembly and a sizeable TV industry, so I’m guessing those things helped.

London, too, puts in its first appearance. Greater London’s population hit bottom some time in the 1980s, so by the early 1990s it was already beginning the return to growth that would end in today’s housing crisis. 

Between those two cities, plus Swindon – Oxford too, if you squint – there’s a sort of “Greater M4 Corridor” bias to the growth pattern. In fact, except Gloucester and Telford, every one of the fastest growing cities has good motorway and rail links to the capital. 

And while the cities that grew most in the 1980s were largely southern, those that grew most afterwards were almost exclusively so. It’s hard not to read this as London’s consolidating its position as the nerve-centre of the British economy.

Let’s look at the bottom 10. It’s worth noting that, even in a 15 year boom, with the national population growing, all these places shrank.

Again, this is a familiar litany of struggling towns in the north and in Scotland. The vast majority of them, oddly enough – Newcastle and Sunderland, Grimsby and Hull, Liverpool, Glasgow, Dundee – were major centres of shipping.

The one slightly unexpected inclusion is Aberdeen, which doesn’t fit our easy economic narrative at all. The centre of Britain’s oil industry is now one of its richest cities, yet its population during the boom years fell, if only a little. Answers on a postcard, please.

Just for the record, the three cities which grew most between 1992 and 2008 were Milton Keynes (30 per cent), Swindon (17 per cent) and Telford (15 per cent) – all of which are “new towns” with room to grow. 

The cities which shrank most were Glasgow (-5 per cent), Sunderland (-6.6 per cent) and Dundee (-6.9 per cent). It probably isn’t a coincidence that the two Scottish cities there were both enthusiastically pro-independence in last year’s referendum. Both factors probably correlate to a struggling local economy: Sunderland would probably want out, too, if it could work out how. 

Next week, we’ll finish the story and ask – what happened during the crash?

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