Those British cities which shrank in the 1980s probably haven't recovered since

Well at least this one's recovered: an aerial view of Ipswich. Image: Cmglee/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.

Last week in this space we looked at the way the population of Britain's major cities had changed since the early 1980s. While all sorts of factors drive population change, and there are no doubt a huge variety of local issues at work here, one pattern was very obvious: cities in the south of England have grown quicker than cities in the north.

Three decades is a long time, though, so we promised to break it down a bit and look at how the numbers had changed over shorter time periods.

The answer, annoyingly, is “by less than you’d think”, but hey, in for a penny.

This week, we're looking at the years from 1981-92, a sort of Greater Thatcher era. Here's the data, in map form. You can hover over individual cities to get the exact numbers.

The first thing to notice is that, well, this doesn't look all that different from the map we ran last week when the time frame lasted a generation rather than a decade. In some ways, that isn't that surprising: in a housing market as sluggish and unresponsive as Britain's (a problem we may have mentioned before), major population shifts are likely to take decades rather than years.


A second point worth highlighting is the rising tide thing. The 1981 census put Britain’s population at around 56.3m; a decade later it was 57.4m. It had barely budged, so not surprisingly, Britain’s cities weren’t growing that quickly either. By 2013, it was up to 64.1m, so, (equally unsurprisingly) at least some of its cities had grown, rather a lot.

Hence the radical difference in what the colour scheme actually means in the two time periods:


Nonetheless, the same-i-ness of the two maps points to a depressing, if depressingly obvious, fact: far too many of the British cities that were struggling in the 1980s will likely have kept struggling for rather a lot of the intervening time since.

Here are the 10 fastest growing cities. The map on the left covers trends in the 1980s; the one on the right those all the way up to 2013.

Eight cities pop up in the top 10 on both long and short timeframes. But the Greater Thatcher era top 10 include Hastings and Warrington (which don't make the cut the longer time frame), and exclude Luton and Crawley (which do).

That said, all of these places are still comfortably near the top of the league table in both timeframes, so we probably shouldn't draw too many conclusions from differences in the details. The key point is that cities that were growing in the 1980s are likely to have kept growing since.

Here's the bottom 10.

The interesting one here is Ipswich, which struggled in the 1980s, its population falling by 3.5 per cent between 1981 and 1992. Since then, though, it's bounced back, and over the years from 1981 to 2013 as a whole it's up 12.2 per cent. At a guess this is a function of geography: London’s long boom spilling over into anywhere within about an hour’s train ride.

Other than that, once again, it all looks quite familiar. Coventry also struggled in the 1980s, and makes the bottom 10 here (down 5.1 per cent). But it doesn't do brilliantly over the longer period either (up, but only 3.1 per cent, which is nothing, at a time when national population is up by about five times that), so is less worth talking about.

Meanwhile, the cities of the industrial north east may have thought they were having a bad time in the 80s. As it turned out, things could and did get worse.

The lesson here is probably not very profound, but it's an important one nonetheless. Population change is a reasonable proxy for "success" in a city: the better a city's economy, the more likely people are to want to live there, and so the more the population is likely to grow.

But "success" is path dependent: the strong a city economy in the recent past, the more likely it is to be strong today. Many of those cities that were losing people in the 1980s have kept losing people since. All this tells is that a struggling city takes a long time to turn around.


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.