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.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.