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.