How did the financial crash affect the populations of Britain's cities?

Edinburgh, one of Britain's boom towns. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Citiesdata tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britains cities.


This week we conclude our exploration of how urban populations have changed over the last 30 years, and look at what happened after the crash of 2008.


We all know the drill by now, I expect. The last few years have seen the cities of south central England, the economic heart of the country, expand in population, in what we must assume is a function of boom. Meanwhile, places we still associate with old heavy industries – mining, shipping, manufacturing – have often shrunk, in what we must assume is a function of bust.


So, did the Great Recession that followed the financial crash shake things up at all? Questions to which the answer is no:



But while the pattern is familiar, some of the details change. Here's the bottom 10 (you can hover over the dots for more detail):

It's mostly a list of our old favourites, in England's one time industrial north: Grimsby, Burnley, Middlesbrough. Note that only two of these (Sunderland and Blackpool) have actualy shrunk. In most cases, these are cities that just aren't growing very fast.


It's worth noting, though, that none of the major cities are in here. Sure, there's Birkinhead, which is part of metropolitan Liverpool; Rochdale is outer Manchester, Sunderland (this'll get me in trouble) an adjunct to Newcastle.


But none of the big cities themselves makes the bottom 10 (Livepool, ranking 52nd out of 64, is the closest). This wasn't true when we looked at the figures for the 1980s, and it's a theme we'll be coming back to.


The top 10 is largely the usuaul litany of southern new towns and university cities: Oxofrd, Cambrdge, Luton, Peterborugh, Milton Keynes. But there are some new entrants, too.

Coventry makes a surprising appearance at the top end of the growth table. Between 2008 and 2013, its population rose by 8 per cent. Between 1981 and 1992, by contrast, it fell by 5 per cent.


Edinburgh is another new entrant, which seems to have followed the same pattern. Between 1981 and 1992 its population actually shrank by around 2 per cent; in the long boom that followed it only rose by 5 per cent.


In the five yeas that followed the crash, though, it grew by more (6.3 per cent) than it had done in the previous decade and a half.


There are some parallels between the Scottish capital and the UK one, 400 miles to the south. Both are centres of finance and (in recent years, at least) politics. Both were shrinking 30 yeas ago, but have seen their populations grow at an increasing rate ever since.


In fact, if we switch from per centage growth to absolute growth we can see that all the biggest increases of recent years have happened in Britain's bigger cities:

It's tempting to draw lofty conclusions from this about our urban future, about how even in times of economic crisis these will be our most resilient job centres yadayadaya. And there's probably some truth to that.


But it's also the case that Britain's population is simply growing, fast (something that makes us pretty unusual in Europe). You'd expect most of the extra people to be accommodated in existing urban centres.


Nonetheless it is striking that places that not so long ago were thought of as in decline – Newcastle, Sheffield, Coventry, even Manchester, the darling of the new economy – are now expanding to take in more people. Maybe the causation runs the other way – and a growing population will actually presage a growing economy, too. We can but dream.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.