A tale of 10 cities: Most big British cities have shrunk relative to the country around them

The John Brown Shipyard, Clydebank, Glasgow, 1938. The relevance of this image will become clear. Image: 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.

Below, excitingly, you’ll find a chart of how the populations of Britain's ten largest cities changed between 1981 and 2014, according to Centre for Cities (CfC) data*. The chart doesn’t show absolute numbers, because the sheer size of London will render any changes in the population of the other nine all but invisible; instead, we’ve indexed them against their 1981 population (100, on the chart). The black line represents the change in population of the UK as a whole.

We've also removed the labels. Just, y'know, to make things more fun.

The 10 cities are: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham and Bristol. See if you can guess which is which.


The first thing to note is that almost all these cities are in relative decline. The population of the UK as a whole – the black line – has increased almost throughout this period (it shrunk very slightly in the early 1980s, but then has increased every year since). Yet two of these ten cities have seen their populations increase faster than the UK as a whole; three have actually shrunk since the early 1980s.

It's possible to over-state the link between population growth and prosperity; and, as ever, where you draw city boundaries is a factor, too. But nonetheless, successful and economically vibrant cities will generally attract more people to live in them. The fact that eight of Britain's ten largest cities have grown less quickly than Britain as a whole is probably not a good thing.

That's the general trend - but which city do you think is which? Looks to me like we have a five different groups here:

  • Two boom towns, which have grown faster than the UK population;
  • Two that basically flat-lined until around 2001, then began to grow quite slowly;
  • Three tightly bunched cities (seriously; two of those lines basically cover each other), that declined throughout the late 20th century, but began to recover around the millennium;
  • A fourth, that looked like it was going to be in that group but arrived late at a weaker recovery;
  • Lastly, two that declined much more steeply, and have barely recovered since; they're still over 10 per cent smaller than they were in 1981. This, given the UK as a whole is 14 per cent bigger, is a really quite significant decline.

You can probably guess that the boom towns are the only two southern English cities on the map. Since 1981, the population of London, on CfC definitions, has grown by nearly a quarter (24 per cent) and Bristol by nealy a fifth (18 per cent).

The others take more explanation so here's a labelled version of that chart:


Why Nottingham and Leeds should have sustained their populations when most similarly sized British cities didn't is quite frankly a mystery to me. Leeds, one can speculate, was helped out by having one of the north's more diversified (and richer) economies; the same can't be said of Nottingham, though. If anyone has a theory, do write in.

The exceptions at the bottom of the graph, though, do have something in common. Newcastle, Liverpool and Glasgow are all built on major rivers (Tyne, Mersey and Clyde), all of which once held shipyards. It's possible that what we're looking at here is the decline of British sea power.

That said, London and Bristol, of course, were port cities too, in their day. As ever, the problem is not the decline of old industry, but the lack of new ones.

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

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*By population, incidentally, we don't mean official population. Rather we're looking atprimary urban areas: a collection of local authorities which, when you take urban build-up and commuting patterns into account, are as good a way as any to define the functional geography of a city.

PUAs are slightly arbitrary, but so is almost every other option. At least these are comparable. And while the PUA boundaries have changed, the figures we're using here cover consistent areas right back to 1981, so there.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.