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It was a fun post, for a certain value of fun – but it's now out of date.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.

 
 
 
 

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.