Are booming cities always growing cities too?

Going up. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty.

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.

Whenever we write about the demographics of cities, there's an assumption we make so casually that it's easy to forget it's an assumption at all: that everything is down to economics.

When we see that Milton Keynes, London or Cambridge are some of Britain's fastest growing cities we think: “Well, that's obviously because they're boom towns, isn't it? Stands to reason.” Then we pat ourselves on our backs for our perspicacity and go merrily upon our way.

The thing is, we've never actually stress tested the logic of this assumption. Sure, cities like Manchester ballooned rapidly during the industrial revolution, as people moved from rural areas to be near jobs; and you can see that trend at work in the developing world right now.

But all that happened at a time of economic revolution. Does the same necessarily hold true in a developed country – especiallly one where it's so hard to build enough housing?

Well – yes, as it turns out. This graph plots the population change between 2011 and 2013 in 62 British cities, against weekly wages in 2012. 

It's not the strongest correlation we've ever seen: some high wage cities like Aldershot and Derby are barely growing at all, while the biggest population growth has happened in relatively low-wage Coventry.

Nor is it hard to think of reasons why cities would buck the trend. Many high wage cities also have high housing costs, making it hard to move into them and limiting their population growth. Some cities double as commuter towns for others nearby (Luton's growth, for example, is probably explained by its proximity to London).

But the correlation is there, nonetheless: even in a developed country with a moribund planning system like Britain, booming cities tend to be growing cities, too.

That doesn’t mean that high wages lead to population growth, of course: correlation is not causation. Even if there is causation, it;’s far from clear which way it runs. Do booming cities attract more people? Or does population growth create economic booms? Maybe, just maybe, it’s both.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.