Where are the largest cities in Britain?

Sheffield: Is this Britain's third city? (Hint: No.) Image: Mick Knapton/Wikimedia Commons.

The other day, over on that Twitter, I was invited (no, really, I was) to help settle an argument: how big is Sheffield? 

A property listing, for the old town hall, had suggested it had once been the nerve centre of the UK's third largest metropolis. No one seemed quite convinced by this, for the very good reason that everyone involved could think of three bigger cities without breaking a sweat. 

So, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that, no, Sheffield is not Britain's third biggest city.

But we like to do things round the book round here – so let's crunch the numbers and establish, once and for all, a definitive ranking.

There’s one slight problem with this ambition: cities are surprisingly hard to define. And if CityMetric had a motto, it'd be whatever the Latin* is for “It depends how you count”.


Municipal boundaries

The reason Sheffield had somehow sneaked its way into third place, despite manifestly not being the country’s third largest city, is because it's often listed as the third largest individual local authority in England, with a population of around 553,000. Only Leeds (751,000) and Birmingham (1.1m) are bigger. Actually, so is Glasgow, with 593,000, but for some reason a single list of local authorities covering the entire UK is surprisingly hard to come by.

And already, you can see another problem with this definition: there isn't a London-wide local authority that's directly comparable to these places. Greater London is more sensibly compared to the other old metropolitan counties (West Midlands, West Yorkshire, etc). But while Greater Manchester is a pretty coherent entity these days, several of the others are still arguing about whether they're one city or several.

Nonetheless, in the name of completism, here are the populations of England's metropolitan counties...

  • Greater London – 8,173,941
  • West Midlands (B'ham) – 2,736,460
  • Greater Manchester – 2,682,528
  • West Yorkshire (Leeds-Bradford) – 2,226,058
  • Merseyside (L'pool) – 1,381,189
  • South Yorkshire (Sheffield) – 1,343,601
  • Tyne & Wear (Newcastle) – 1,104,825

...and of some of the bigger official "cities" they contain:

  • Birmingham – 1,073,045
  • Leeds – 751,485
  • Sheffield – 552,698
  • Bradford – 522,452
  • Manchester – 503,127
  • Liverpool – 466,415
  • Bristol – 428,234
  • Newcastle – 280,177
  • Sunderland – 275,506
  • Wolverhampton – 249,470

(Source: 2011 census data.)

Right. Now that's out the way, we can get onto the stuff that's actually useful. 

The urban area

There are a number of other ways of defining city populations, of which perhaps the most obvious is the “urban area” – that is, the continuously built up zone. This, after all, is the thing that feels like a city when you are actually inside it – or, come to that, when you are flying over it in a plane. 

The most up-to-date stats on this measure come from Demographia, a St. Louis-based consultancy, which every year gathers data on every city with a population of 500,000 or more and ranks it in its World Urban Areas Report.

In this year's edition 13 British cities make that list. Here they are, in chart form:

The dominance of London, though, renders the chart almost unreadable – we really only included it to give you some sense of the numbers we're talking about here – so from here on in we'll just present the figures.

Here's that population data again. The first number is their rank in the hierarchy of British cities; the one in brackets is their rank in the world. 

  • 1 (32) – London – 10,236,000
  • 2 (170) – Manchester – 2,639,000
  • 3 (183) – Birmingham-Wolverhampton – 2,512,000
  • 4 (259) – Leeds-Bradford – 1,893,000
  • 5 (390) – Glasgow – 1,220,000
  • 6 (565) – Southampton-Portsmouth – 883,000
  • 7 (570) – Liverpool – 875,000
  • 8 (619) – Newcastle – 793,000
  • 9 (650) – Nottingham – 755,000
  • 10 (701) – Sheffield – 706,000
  • 11 (776) – Bristol – 646,000
  • 12 (824) – Belfast – 600,000
  • 13 (942) – Leicester – 534,000

So, now you know Leicester residents: you're the 942nd largest city in the world. 

A number of comments about this data. Firstly, on this definition, Britain's historic second city Birmingham has been shoved into third place. Poor Birmingham.

Secondly, the only one of the four UK countries without a city of this size is Wales: Cardiff, with 467,000 residents, just misses ranking. 


Perhaps the most unexpected entry here is in sixth place. No one would think of either Southampton or Portsmouth as a major city: considered as a single entity, though, which in terms of sprawl they are, they're bigger than relative giants such as Liverpool or Newcastle.

Oh, and Sheffield barely makes the top 10, so is definitely not the third largest city in Britain. Just to be clear.

But there are other ways of visualising cities. For example:

Primary urban areas

PUAs are, essentially, collections of local authorities that function a bit like single cities. They were created by the Department for Communities & Local Government a decade or so back, as a statistical tool to help it draw comparisons between very different places. The aim was to come up with a list of areas less arbitrary than existing council boundaries; but which still allowed you to count largely independent but touching cities (Southampton and Portsmouth, say) as independent entities. 

Our old friends at the Centre for Cities still use PUAs in their own research, and have conveniently published a map of how they looked in 2014. Here it is:


 

On these definitions, Leeds and Bradford are counted separately; Sunderland isn't part of Newcastle, and Bolton, Rochdale and Wigan are not included in Manchester. These things obviously have a knock-on effect on the final figures for how big city populations are. 

Those caveats behind us, here's the top 10:

  • 1. London – 9,750,500
  • 2. Birmingham – 2,453,700
  • 3. Manchester – 1,903,100
  • 4. Glasgow – 1,057,600
  • 5. Newcastle – 837,500
  • 6. Sheffield – 818,800
  • 7. Liverpool – 793,100
  • 8. Leeds – 761,500
  • 9. Bristol – 706,600
  • 10. Belfast – 675,600

Manchester is rather shrunken; Birmingham is back in second place. Leeds, deprived of Bradford, has fallen a long way down the league tables. And Southampton and Portsmouth, two cities once again, are nowhere to be seen. 

Let's look at one last definition:

Metropolitan areas

Metropolitan areas are, in the most literal sense, the big ones – not simply a city itself, but its suburbs, commuter towns and rural hinterland. On this definition, London isn't Greater London – it's a large chunk of the Home Counties, too. 

The figures below are from a document published in 2007, and are based on data taken from 2001, so the numbers are pretty out of data (hence the inconsistencies with the other lists above). But it's the best we've got so here, courtesy of the EU's ESPON project, are the top 10.

  • 1. London – 13,709,000
  • 2. Birmingham-Wolverhampton – 3,683,000
  • 3. Manchester – 2,556,000
  • 4. Leeds-Bradford – 2,302,000
  • 5. Liverpool-Birkenhead – 2,241,000
  • 6. Newcastle-Sunderland – 1,599,000
  • 7. Sheffield – 1,569,000
  • 8. Southampton-Portsmouth – 1,547,000
  • 9. Nottingham-Derby – 1,543,000
  • 10. Glasgow – 1,395,000

Considered as a metro, rather than a city, Birmingham is way ahead of Manchester – a result of its better transport links to surrounding towns, perhaps. The twin cities of South Hampshire are back in the rankings, and several other cities look a lot bigger when the whole of their economic footprint is taken into account.

Glasgow, however, doesn't: it barely makes the top 10. Compared to cities like Birmingham or Leeds, it doesn't have much of a hinterland.


Towards a conclusion

What should be clear by now is that no definitive ranking is possible. You can say that London is definitely the UK's biggest city, and no one will challenge you. You can say that Manchester is bigger than Newcastle, and be on pretty safe ground. But is Manchester bigger than Birmingham? What's the UK's 7th biggest city? These are questions with no answers.

What we can do, though, is come up with a sort of typology: not a numbered ranking, exactly, but a sort of way of visualising which league cities are playing in. 

Here you go:

  • Megacity: London
  • Second cities: Birmingham, Manchester
  • Major cities: Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield
  • Large cities: Belfast, Bristol, Nottingham, Southampton/Portsmouth, Leicester, etc.

The latter category is incomplete: other cities, like Cardiff, Edinburgh, Middlesbrough, even Brighton or Bournemouth, probably have a claim to be in there, too. Britain only has one city whose population even gets close to 10m, but a couple of handfuls of them are bobbing around the 500,000 mark.

But the point, in the end, is clear. No way in hell is Sheffield Britain's third city. 

By the way, if you're the sort of person who'd like to read more of this kind of nonsense, you should totally like us on Facebook.

*Dependet quam numeras.

 
 
 
 

Meet the Sheffield social enterprise using shipping containers to tackle the housing crisis

A shipping container, repurposed as housing. Image: REACH.

A Sheffield-based social enterprise is hoping to navigate the rocky waters of the UK housing market, by creating affordable 1, 2 and 3-bedroom homes from shipping containers.

Inspired by an episode of Grand Designs, former police officer Jon Johnson set up REACH – Recycled, Environmental, Affordable Container Homes – in January 2017. Following a small grant from charity UnLtd, the social enterprise built a prototype which it is currently showing off to interested parties from around the UK. Johnson believes it can build 6,000 units a year, helping to plug the housing shortfall and creating genuinely affordable homes.

Just 1.4 per cent of homes in large developments approved by planners in Sheffield in 2016 and 2017 met the government’s affordable definition. In Manchester, it was literally none..

“We need to build the houses people want, where they want them, rather than what developers can bully through,” says Johnson. “I’ve got 40 or 50 housing reports. Are we going to keep writing reports or are we going to do something about it?”

During Johnson’s almost 30-year career in the police force, he saw first-hand the effects that insecure and poor-quality housing can have on communities in Britain. “It underpins everything in society. Everybody needs somewhere to live,” he says. “And if you haven’t got a decent place to be, that is adding to mental or health problems. You're onto a loser from the outset.”


“Decent housing is a human right like air and water,” he goes on. “It’s always been done to us by people who don’t care about standards or quality as long as they’re making money.”

Johnson used skills learnt through his furniture recycling store, Strip the Willow, to decorate the prototype, and sourced every bit of second-hand wood he used locally. The panelling used to be a counter in a local Indian takeaway, the cladding on the roof came from a local mosque. The bedroom headboard is made out of a piano, and light fittings are made out of cymbals.

Each of his eco homes will be 60 per cent recycled, built offsite in three weeks and powered by renewable energy sources. “We aim to make use of million tons of waste we put into landfill every year,” he says.

Changing the playing field

But followers of the UK housing market will be unsurprised when Johnson says there are vested interests and serious obstacles to overcome before REACH can achieve its dream of turning a cottage industry something more substantial.

“The same people will just keep profiteering out of everyone else’s misery,” he says. “We're trying to do housing the right way. It’s about people and planet, not just profit. Housing shouldn't be about giving out millions in bonuses at end of the year.”

But REACH won't be able to build any homes without land – perhaps the biggest hurdle for them to get over.

Following the Second World War, the government freed up land and built prefab housing estates around the country. Johnson believes a similarly bold approach is needed to meet the housing demands of the 21st century.

However, the publication of the social housing green paper last week made no promises to build more social housing. It “doesn’t commit a single extra penny towards building the social homes that are desperately needed,” said housing charity Shelter.

Frustration with this situation led Johnson to set up the National Federation of Affordable Building (NFAB), which brings together organisations from across the offsite construction sector who all would like to see a change in policy. “The reason we set up NFAB was because so many SMEs have had conversations with Homes England and got nowhere.”

The current Homes England system for listing land means building companies need to have a turnover of £50m before they can even be considered for public land – a bidding process that excludes all SMEs such as REACH.

REACH does have backing from the Local Government Assocation, though. It also has Sheffield City Council on board, and is hoping the council will soon be given a piece of land to build the first nine homes, freeing up funds for its first off-site factory.

It's clear that it’s going to take some forward-thinking councils for it to succeed. “We need a Dunkirk style situation with SMEs getting some innovation into the market,” Johnson says. “The issue of land and how much its worth is entirely notional. Land is expensive because people think it is.

“If Homes England can ringfence a percentage of the land they give to the big builders every year, and have that for affordable development, we won’t have a problem because the SMEs will have somewhere to access the market instead of queueing up for massively expensive land.”

At the moment, he notes, “Big builders don’t want to do things any differently because they're protectionist of their profit margins. SMEs can’t get a look in. We need to alter that playing field.”

A sustainable trend?

One popular misconception of homes made from shipping containers is that they are too cold in winter and uncomfortably hot in summer. Some critics also suggest that say the current trend for modular housing is a fad.

But Johnson says that residents will need the heating on for only two months a year: the homes are designed using ‘Passivhaus’ principles, which optimises energy efficiency through its design.

“They are light and spacious,” he says. “It’s how we use the offset of parts of the containers. They are like adult Lego. We can use architectural glass and make some fabulous buildings.

“They’re affordable but they will look like architect-designed houses.”

The one, two and three bedroom models will be sold at £35,000, £65,000 and £90,000 respectively. There is already a large waiting list of people ready to move in once they've secured some land.

At present, “I don’t think it’s a trend,” Johnson admits. But “it will take over the market if it's done right. The tech has now caught up and modular housing can be controlled a lot more intelligently in the factory. It cuts down on construction costs, waste and theft of materials from sites. It makes the whole process of housebuilding a lot more efficient.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to get housing moving in the right direction and get sustainability on the agenda,” he concludes. “That’s not going to happen if we leave it to the big builders.”

Thomas Barrett is the editor of New Start magazine, where this story first appeared. He tweets as @tbarrettwrites.

All images courtesy of the author/REACH.