A tale of 62 cities: how Britain’s population growth fell to its small towns

Milton Keynes, 1968. Yep. Image: Getty.

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. 

Last week in this slot, we looked at how the populations of Britain's largest cities had changed between 1981 and 2014. What we found is

  • that London's population boom hadn't been replicated in the other core cities;
  • that most cities had in fact shrunk, as a share of the population of the UK; and
  • that those which had shrunk the most (Liverpool, Glasgow) were those which had built up around ports.

Here’s the obligatory chart.

These, though, are only the largest British cities. Do the same trends hold if you look at every significant British city? What do you get if you plot the way populations have changed in all 62 British cities followed by the Centre for Cities, relative to their 1981 population?

A mess, that’s what.

(Full disclosure at this point: I got halfway through colour coding them by their size, realised the result would still be a mess, albeit a mess with slightly fewer colours in it, then decided to try something else. So, there you go.)

That chart is clearly illegible. If we’re going to learn anything at all we need to break things down a bit. So, since that’s where we’ve started, let’s do it by size.

I’ve broken our cities into four groups of 15-17 cities each, based on how big they were back in 1981.

Here’s the largest group: cities which, 35 years ago, had a population of 400,000 or more. (The smallest back in 1981 was Leicester, though it’s since been undertaking by Middlesbrough.) So that you can see how they’ve fared relative to the UK as a whole, I’ve included the trend in national population as a thick black line.

This is basically last week's graph with a few extra cities thrown in so, once again, the most notable trend is that most cities have grown more slowly than the UK as a whole – have, as a share of the national population, shrunk.

Portsmouth looks like an exception to our theory that shipbuilding cities are in decline. Perhaps it’s protected by fact it's in south east of England and commutable to London; or perhaps the theory was never up to much. More on this below.

The other thing to note is that Bradford and, especially, Leicester have actually grown pretty quickly. One plausible explanation for this is that both have very ethnically diverse populations: diverse cities tend to be younger than mostly white ones, and thus produce more kids.

Anyway. On to the next group down: cities which, in 1981, had populations of between 275,000 and 400,000. Back then, the largest was Huddersfield (377,000) and the smallest Cardiff (287,000). By 2014, the largest was Bournemouth (478,000), and the smallest Sunderland (277,000).

Once again, the majority of cities have grown slower than UK average. Two of those that have shrunk the most are, on some definitions, suburbs of the larger cities that shrunk most in group one (Birkenhead is sort of Liverpool; Sunderland is sort of Newcastle).

But unlike on the previous chart, in this group there are also a few cities that have grown fairly steadily over the past 30 years (Cardiff, Preston). Several of these – Brighton, Southampton, Bournemouth – are on the south coast of England. Perhaps that’s the trend that allowed Portsmouth to break the curse of the dockyards.

The other city worth noting here is Coventry which, after a long period of decline, seems to have grown unusually quickly since around the time the credit crunch hit. No idea what that’s about.

On to Division Three: cities which, in 1981, had populations of between 165,000 and 275,000. Back then, the largest was Hull (274,000) and the smallest was York (165,000); by 2014, those rankings were held by Reading (320,000) and Dundee (148,000).

Which means that York is now bigger than Dundee. Go figure.


Dundee and Hull seem to fit our narrative that having booming shipyards in the early 20th century is generally a great way of seeing your population collapse by the 21st century. Chatham is another partial exception to that – but, like Portsmouth, was probably saved by its proximity to London.

Aberdeen is another town that’s seen a radical reverse in its fortunes, albeit more explicably: that's almost certainly the oil boom at work.

And, yet again, the vast majority of cities shrunk compared to the UK as a whole. This is becoming weird now.

Last and also, frankly, least are the tiddlers: those which in 1981 were home to fewer than 165,000 people. The largest then was Luton (just shy of 165,000); the smallest was Crawley (just over 82,000). By 2014, the smallest was Worthing (107,000), the largest was... well, look:

Yep. In 1981, Milton Keynes had a population of 126,000. By 2014 it was 259,000. It’s the only city anywhere in these rankings to have doubled in population. It’s grown so much, in fact, that it sort of breaks the graph, so here's a version without it:

In this category, for the first time, all the cities have grown, and most have grown faster than UK as a whole. The smaller the city, the more likely it is to have grown faster than the UK average. Here’s a table:

There are number of possible explanations for this that I can see. One is that the absolute figures are smaller: it’s probably easier to grow by 10 per cent if you're the size of Exeter (and so need to build about 5,000 extra houses) than if you're the size of Manchester (and so need to build around 100,000).

It probably also reflects land use policies. Most big UK cities are ringed by green belts, intended to stop them growing. As a matter of deliberate government policy, growth was funnelled to the New Towns – which include the likes of Milton Keynes, Swindon, Telford, Crawley, Peterborough, Basildon... Spotting any patterns here?

A prominent theory in the world of urban economics concerns the benefits of aggregation: larger cities, it’s argued, are generally more productive than smaller ones. The UK is a freak in that it doesn’t fit this model at all.

I can’t help but wonder if, just maybe, that’s the result of deliberate government policy to direct growth away from major cities. Perhaps, if we want to solve productivity puzzle, we’ll need to change that.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.