Britain's fastest growing cities are all in the south – and its shrinking ones all in the north

Milton Keynes, Britain's boom town. Image: Priory Man/Wikimedia Commons.

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

You know, we've got into a bit of a pattern with this series. “People talk about the north south divide,” we’ll say. “But when you look at the numbers, actually, it's a lot more complicated than that.” What can we say, we're as prone to repeating predictable narratives as any other media organisation.

This week, then, when we crunched some numbers and discovered that divide was still alive and well, it was almost a surprise – albeit not a particularly pleasant one.

This map shows the percentage change in the population of Britain's cities between 1981 and 2013. (We chose those dates for no other reason than they were the earliest and latest on which data was available.) You can see the figures for any individual city, just by hovering the mouse over it.

The north-south split is already pretty clear, but it becomes even clearer when you go to the extremes of the league table. Here are the 10 cities which grew the most in those 32 years:

Not coincidentally, four of these cities – Telford, Northampton, Peterborough, and Milton Keynes – are “new towns”, designated by the governments of the 1960s as areas of growth. The largest of these has grown so much faster than the others that its lead on this measure is effectively uncontested.

Milton Keynes, the giant new town in Buckinghamshire, has only existed since 1967. In less than 50 years, it's grown to become a fair sized city, with a population of 256,000, and between 1981 and 2013 the number of people who lived there grew by 103 per cent. The second fastest growing city over that period was Swindon: that grew by just 41 per cent.

Anyway, we’re getting off topic here. The main point to notice is that only one of Britain's boom towns is above the line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash: that's Telford, in the Midlands. All of the others are pretty comfortably within London's orbit.

Now check out the bottom 10, all of which have shrunk. (Just FYI, every other city on this list has grown.)

Two in Scotland, eight in the north, and basically all of them once famous for heavy industry – docking, shipbuilding, manufacturing. This is economic change, making itself known through demographics.

In the name of completism, here's one last map. This one is absolute, rather than relative, changes in population.

 

The individual cities at either end of the map are different (for obvious reasons, larger cities are more prone to numerically large changes in population). The north south divide, though, still very clearly holds.


These maps show a third of a century’s worth of change. It's an entire generation, including three recessions and three booms.

So in the weeks to come we'll be breaking this down a bit – to see whether the story changes at all when you look at shorter time periods. You lucky people.

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

 
 
 
 

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.