Where is England's fourth city?

Liverpool: a serious contender. Image: Getty.

The fight has long been raging between Birmingham and Manchester over the title of England’s second city. We've got the biggest population, cry the Brummies. We're a proper city and we've got more than one tram line! the Mancunians shout in return.

No-one is asking the real question, however: which is England’s fourth city?

Before we get to the more qualitative measures, let’s get our populations out on the table and measure them. There’s an obvious winner here, and that’s Leeds.

West Yorkshire is the only conurbation outside London, Birmingham and Manchester that has more than a million people living in it. That figure includes Bradford, Wakefield and Huddersfield, too – but the city of Leeds proper boasts over 750,000 people, which bumps it well above Manchester in the city population table, making it second only to London and Birmingham.

Leeds is definitely in contention then – but where else? Four of England’s other “core cities” – Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol and Sheffield – all feel to me like they have the potential to compete. (If anyone feels particularly strongly about Norwich or Plymouth, then feel free to angrily tweet at me.)

Let’s take a look at how each city stacks up for architecture, culture, growth and transport infrastructure.


Liverpool boasts a certain grandeur. If you arrive by train then you’re treated to a barrage of Grecian columns in St George’s Hall. Arrive from the Mersey and you get to see what a real waterfront looks like at Pier Head (take note, Southampton). 

There’s a branch of the Tate here, the Echo Arena and a couple of Premiership football teams thrown in for good measure. Merseyrail is a fairly extensive and frequent urban rail system, and the busy international airport adds to those fourth city vibes.

Sadly for Liverpool, the city isn’t keeping up with the rest in terms of population and business growth. Since 2004 there’s only been a 2.6 per cent increase in population (ONS, 2015) and a lot of the city can still feel very down-at-heel. That fly in the ointment aside, there’s a lot going to Liverpool.


Newcastle definitely feels right. There’s not much that beats arriving by train over the Tyne, and then hopping onto the city’s frequent and cheerful Metro.

Newcastle isn’t in the orbit of any other major city: it’s a true provincial capital, and that’s reflected in the confidence of its civic architecture, from the beautiful Tyneside Classical streets to the delightful mid-century Civic Centre.

There’s a solid 8 per cent level of overall job growth since 2004 (ONS, 2015), and it’s affordable too. When I hear how much my friends in the city pay for rent I do struggle to contain my urge to move north.

Newcastle's cultural prestige is secure, too, with the riverside attractions of the Sage and the Baltic as well as the Newcastle Arena. A strong contender for the glamorous title of England’s fourth city.


Bristol is the only city in contention to be in the South of England, and it has reaped the economic fortunes that this has provided over the last few decades.

But where Bristol is ahead in growth and potential, it lags behind the other cities in its cultural and transport infrastructure. The city is better known for its independent culture than for big venues, and its ongoing struggle to build an arena on derelict ground next to the station is getting a bit embarrassing.

The city is similarly embarrassed by its lack of urban transport. A little two-carriage train runs irregularly on the branch line to Severn Beach, and although a guided busway is under construction, the city is at the mercy of First Bus’s notorious timetable changes when it comes to getting about without a car. Bristol is the second city of the south, sure – but it’s been knocked out of the park by the “northern powerhouse” in this race.


Sheffield doesn't hit you in the face with regional importance, especially not if you arrive by train. But the city has a fair number of impressive set pieces like the Arts Tower, Park Hill flats and Gothic Town Hall.  Culturally it holds its own with the Winter Gardens, Crucible, Arena and a good array of museums and galleries.

The Supertram is an impressive bit of urban transport, but most of the city is connected by the shoddy Pacer trains and a fractured bus system. Sheffield lost its airport in 2008, and instead finds itself tacked on to the end of Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield, which is a shame.

There’s lots to like in South Yorkshire. but I don’t think it has quite the right big city feel to be in contention against the likes of Liverpool and Newcastle. Sorry, Sheffield.


With its huge urban area population, the title of fourth city is really Leeds' to lose. The city has plenty of great civic architecture to match its population, with the Civic Hall, Corn Exchange and Town Hall all offering their imposing presences, as well as some cracking regional cityscape like Kirkgate Market and the Victorian arcades. Leeds definitely feels like a big city.

Leeds is ahead of its competitors in terms of private sector job growth but it also tops the table for social inequality (ONS, 2015). The city's transport infrastructure is definitely one of the weak points here – there's no tram or urban transport other than buses and regional trains – which is a great shame. It doesn’t look as though there’s much in the pipeline either. Despite all this, Leeds is still a strong contender for the title.

There we have it then. A three-way battle between Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds. Keep it civil please.

Adam J. Smith is a student and writer from Southampton, UK. He tweets as @nfkadam

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Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.

…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.