We’re changing the way we define Britain's cities. Here’s why

Whatever happened to Grimsby? Image: Centre for Cities.

You better watch out,

You better not cry,

Better not pout,

I'm telling you why,

because in a new report the Centre for Cities has reviewed its Primary Urban Area (PUAs) definitions for the first time in a decade, and it contains all sorts of fascinating insights about the UK's fast changing economic geography

Santa Claus is coming to toooooown.

Best. Christmas. Ever.

PUAs, you'll obviously recall, are collections of local authorities based on the physical and economic footprint of Britain’s cities, created to make it easier to compare them.

The Centre for Cities (CfC) has long been using the list created by the Department for Communities & Local Government back in 2005. But a lot can change in 10 years, so it's roped in some academics at Newcastle University to come up with new definitions.

Explaining what they are and how they're arrived at rapidly gets technical, so there's some light-hearted explanatory spiel below. But you're obviously the sort of person who knows all this stuff, and what you really want is a map, so let's get on with it.

The map

Here’s a map of the new economic geography. Light grey areas are authorities which were included in PUAs in 2005, but are now out: in some cases that’s because they're not part of the relevant cities under the new definition; in others it’s because entire cities have dropped off the list. Darker green areas are those which have been added to the list.

Let's play our game:

This is a bit small, isn't it? Click to expand it.

Who's in, and who's out

In the 2005 definitions, the UK had 64 Primary Urban Areas. It's now down to 63 (boo). Of these, the vast majority (55) are in England. Three are in Wales, four in Scotland, just one (Belfast) in Northern Ireland.

But nothing is ever simple, so it isn’t just that a single city has dropped out of the list. The changes are myriad – but here’s a summary of the key ones.

  • In fact, two cities have fallen out of the list (boo): Grimsby and Hastings. These just aren't big enough to fit the new definitions. Sorry, guys.
  • Three others (yay!) have been added. One of these is Exeter, which is a pretty big economic centre for southern and eastern Devon – so much so that it's a bit of a surprise it wasn't in the original list.
  • The other two additions are more surprising, as both are effectively commuter towns on the fringes of London: Slough to the west, and Basildon to the east.
  • Elsewhere, changing commuter patterns mean Bolton and Rochdale have been swallowed by Manchester, though Wigan remains separate.
  • Three other cities – Swansea, Newport, Bournemouth – have expanded to incorporate neighbouring councils.
  • Five – Crawley, Blackpool, Reading, Liverpool and Glasgow – have lost a council.
  • London has lost bits of Surrey, but gained a chunk of Hertfordshire (Hertsmere).
  • Belfast has gone wiggly because of a council reorganisation in Northern Ireland.

The definitions

So, what just happened?

PUAs, you'll recall, were created by the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) a decade or so ago, as an attempt to come up with definitions that allow you to draw direct comparisons between them.

This, though, is no easy business. In some places, an urban area will extend outside official boundaries, so PUAs will include largely rural authorities that border them (that’s why Epping Forest is included in London's PUA).

In other cases, what would from an aeroplane look like single urban areas will in fact be broken into two or more PUAs. That’s to reflect the fact that, in terms of economic geography and commuting patterns, they function as more than one city (this is the case with Portsmouth and Southampton).

And, as is always the case with matters of boundaries, questions of identity – of which city people actually feel they belong to – tend to get steamrollered. The nice people of Wolverhampton feel very strongly that, whatever else they are, they are definitely not a part of Birmingham. And yet, as far as the CfC, and the DCLG before them, are concerned, though, it is. Sorry.

Like the old definitions, the new list focuses on built up areas. But it's shifted from a resident population of 125,000 to a workday population of 135,000, so as to focus the list on the biggest economic centres.

There are various other changes – the new list downplays Travel To Work Areas, for a start – but they rapidly get so technical that we get dizzy and turn back to the map for comfort. If you're desperate to read more about them, though, you can see the original report here.

The new definitions will change the way the Centre for Cities analyses Britain's cities from next year onwards. Since the think tank is one of CityMetric's most important partners, and since we spend a lot of time playing with their data, it'll change the way we look at them too.

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CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

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CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.