Where are Britain's largest cities? (Slight return)

A fascinatingly weird stock image that comes up when you search for demographics on Getty. Image: Getty/Retrofile.

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. This week we're getting a bit wonkish.

Back in September, we published a massively geeky piece looking at various ways of defining Britain's cities, and ranking them in a list.

We concluded that, while there was no definitive way of ranking them you could come up with a sort of typology, to get a sense of which league cities were playing in. It looked like this:

  • Megacity (c10m people): London
  • Second cities (c2m people): Birmingham, Manchester
  • Major cities (c1m people): Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield
  • Large cities (c500,000-800,000 people): Belfast, Bristol, Nottingham, Southampton/Portsmouth, Leicester, etc.

It was a fun post, for a certain value of fun – but it's now out of date. One of the definitions we looked at was the one favoured by the Centre for Cities, which in turn had got it from the Department for communities & Local Government. That's the "primary urban areas": collections of local authorities that function a bit like single cities.

The problem is that, last December, the CfC updated its PUAs. Some – like Swansea and Bournemouth – grew, to incorporate new areas. Others – Liverpool, Glasgow, Reading – lost councils and shrank. London did both, while a council reorganisation means that Belfast's boundaries bare almost no relation to the previous incarnation. A few cities disappeared from the list altogether, while others appeared from nowhere.

None of this actually matters to how cities function on the ground – but since you, dear reader, enjoy arguments about boundaries and love lists as we do, we thought it worth showing what it'd done to the rankings.

Here's the top 10 British cities by population, under the old PUA rankings. The figures are for 2013:

  • 1. London - 9,750,500
  • 2. Birmingham - 2,453,700
  • 3. Manchester - 1,903,100
  • 4. Glasgow - 1,057,600
  • 5. Newcastle - 837,500
  • 6. Sheffield - 818,800
  • 7. Liverpool - 793,100
  • 8. Leeds - 761,500
  • 9. Bristol - 706,600
  • 10. Belfast - 675,600

And here's the top 10 under the new ones. (Still 2013, to keep the figures comparable.) 

  • 1. London - 9617300
  • 2. Birmingham - 2453700
  • 3. Manchester - 2395300
  • 4. Glasgow - 967800
  • 5. Newcastle - 837500
  • 6. Sheffield - 818800
  • 7. Leeds - 761500
  • 8. Bristol - 706600
  • 9. Nottingham - 650100
  • 10. Liverpool - 616900

Liverpool has dropped from 8th to 10th place. Belfast, previously 10th, has dropped out of the list altogether (it's now all the way down at 16th). Its place in the top 10 has been taken by Nottingham, which previously ranked 11th

There are other changes that haven't affected the rankings, too. Manchester has grown quite substantially, thanks to its conquest of Bolton and Rochdale. Glasgow has shrunk.

In all, of the 60 cities included in both the old and new sets of PUAs, 12 of them have seen boundary changes. Here they are, ranked by the percentage change in their populations.

Newport and Swansea have both increased in scale quite considerably – the former from around 150,000 to around 240,000; the latter from 240,000 to around 380,000. Tiny Crawley, meanwhile, has shrunk by more than half, from 250,000 to 110,000.

When I started writing this, I didn’t really expect to have any conclusion, in particular: I just thought it'd be a fun piece for the demographic stats nerds. (Hi, guys!) But, to my surprise, I’ve got one.

As you'd expect, the most extreme percentage changes have been seen in smaller cities, where the loss or gain of a single local authority can have a substantial impact on city size. But there are two exceptions. Liverpool's population in the new rankings has dropped by 22 per cent. That's the result of the defection of St. Helen's which, in turn, seems likely to reflect the rise of neighbouring Warrington as a local economic power. As Warrington has risen, more people in Liverpool's eastern suburbs have commuted east, rather than west, and St Helen’s is no longer obviously just a dormitory zone for Liverpool.

The population of Manchester, meanwhile, is 26 per cent bigger in the new rankings – thanks to its incorporation of Bolton and Rochdale. That probably reflects its growing importance as an economic centre for a large chunk of the north west.

We shouldn't read too much into this. It's just one way of defining a city. Nonetheless – the changes to PUAs do look a little like they might reflect Liverpool and Manchester's relative fortunes.

Here's an interactive map showing the population's of Britain's cities under the new PUA definitions: hover over a city to get the data. Enjoy.


The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 

There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.