Which cities grew most during Britain's 15 year boom – and which didn't grow at all?

Cardiff, one of Britain's boom towns. Image: Thomas Davey/Wikimedia Commons.

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 continue our exploration of how urban populations have changed over the last 30 years, by looking at which cities grew, and which cities shrank, during the long boom between the recession of the early 1990s and the financial crash of 2008.

The story so far. Since the dawn of the Thatcher era, in news that will surprise almost nobody, the population of many of Britain's industrial cities has declined or flatlined; these, mostly, are in the north. Meanwhile, the population of those with big service industries, especially new towns, has expanded; these, mostly, are in the south.

More surprisingly, and more depressingly, those which started shrinking in the 1980s haven't really recovered since

The eighties was a particularly difficult decade though. After the early nineties recession, the economy tuned around, and went through an unprecedented 15 year expansion. And Britain’s population growth rate started ramping up, too.

So – what happened to its cities then? 

Well, this happened then. These are the figures showing the difference in population between 1992, the year of the Black Wednesday crash, and 2008, the year of the credit crunch. (There is a risk of oversimplification here, but we have to draw the line somewhere.) As ever, darker colours mean faster growth:


It's dangerous to assume there's a perfect correlation between economic strength and population growth: there isn't. 

But nonetheless, when looking at the pattern here, it's hard to completely ignore the economic implications. Cities in the affluent south are more likely to have expanded during the long boom. The only city north of the Wash in that darkest shade of green is York. 

Here's the top 10:


It's a similar list of cities to the ones that were grew most in the 1980s. Several old favourites – Crawley, Oxford, Peterborough, Milton Keynes – are back once again. But there are some new additions, too.

One is Cardiff: it's not immediately obvious why, but during the boom years it did acquire both the Welsh Assembly and a sizeable TV industry, so I'm guessing those things helped.

London, too, puts in its first appearance. Greater London's population hit bottom some time in the 1980s, so by the early 1990s it was already beginning the return to growth that would end in today's housing crisis. 

Between those two cities, plus Swindon – Oxford too, if you squint – there’s a sort of "Greater M4 Corridor" bias to the growth pattern. In fact, except Gloucester and Telford, every one of the fastest growing cities has good motorway and rail links to the capital. 

And while the cities that grew most in the 1980s were largely southern, those that grew most afterwards were almost exclusively so. It's hard not to read this as London's consolidating its position as the nerve-centre of the British economy.

Let's look at the bottom 10. It's worth noting that, even in a 15 year boom, with the national population growing, all these places shrank.

Again, this is a familiar litany of struggling towns in the north and in Scotland. The vast majority of them, oddly enough – Newcastle and Sunderland, Grimsby and Hull, Liverpool, Glasgow, Dundee – were major centres of shipping.

The one slightly unexpected inclusion is Aberdeen, which doesn't fit our easy economic narrative at all. The centre of Britain's oil industry is now one of its richest cities, yet its population during the boom years fell, if only a little. Answers on a postcard, please.

Just for the record, the three cities which grew most between 1992 and 2008 were Milton Keynes (30 per cent), Swindon (17 per cent) and Telford (15 per cent) – all of which are "new towns" with room to grow. 

The cities which shrank most were Glasgow (-5 per cent), Sunderland (-6.6 per cent) and Dundee (-6.9 per cent). It probably isn't a coincidence that the two Scottish cities there were both enthusiastically pro-independence in last year's referendum. Both factors probably correlate to a struggling local economy: Sunderland would probably want out, too, if it could work out how. 

Next week, we'll finish the story and ask – what happened during the crash?


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.