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It was a fun post, for a certain value of fun – but it's now out of date.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


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.