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.

 
 
 
 

How learning to navigate London on crutches revealed a new side to the city

The world’s tallest man, Sultan Kosen, on a trip to London in 2009. Image: Getty.

When I was in primary school, crutches were not mobility aids but an interesting new toy to be borrowed at lunch time while their sedentary owner rested on a bench alone. I used to think swinging through the air on your arms looked “fun”. To children, in the context of a concrete playground, perhaps it is.  

A severe sprain recently left me completely without the use of my right leg. As a generally sprightly 20-something, usually able to go wherever I wanted easily and quickly, learning to navigate London on one leg was both exhausting and fascinating.

****

Let me set the scene. It is midnight on Sunday. Two or three people are consistently tumbling into the Royal Free Hospital reception. One lies sideways across the slimy vinyl chairs as an elderly lady is ushered quickly through the system by tired nurses who somehow maintain a bedside manner.

I am not an urgent case and so I wait as the hours drag by and people run in and out of the bathroom to vomit, watching the numbers tail off until people are slowly dripping in and out of reception.

Some of these Londoners have clearly never been to an NHS hospital before. Instead of arriving armed with a large bottle of water, two books, a sheet of painkillers, and a phone charger – not to mention large measures of patience – people sporadically and loudly abuse the junior night-shift staff for their hours-long waits at the remnants of our publicly-funded health institutions.

Headache-rousing arguments at 3:00am, tired triage nurses, receptionists whose bored responses to being threatened suggest they have to deal with this shit every day. Security are called frequently and burly men arrive to repeat “sorry, you can’t talk to our staff like this.”

Some patients leave before they are even treated, surely a testament to the urgency with which their injuries actually needed to be dealt.

A creepy man, aged at least 50, shuffles past my room to stare at me every two minutes. It is probably envy, I tell myself, as I actually have a room. I actually have somebody seeing me. At six in the morning, a 20-something junior doctor teaches me how to use my crutches. Shoulder width apart, don’t use them going downstairs, how are you getting home?

Crutches are hard, it transpires. My palms are red and bruised, my shoulders stiff. The hospital taxi driver charges me an extra 50p to stop at a cash machine for the inconvenience of paying him. Two months in, I’m sure I’ll have developed buff abs, arms and shoulders, while my legs will have become completely asymmetric.

****

Aside from learning just how infuriating its inhabitants find long hospital waiting hours, my perception of the capital has shifted exponentially in the past week. My path is now defined by questions I had never previously considered. Which tube stations have stairs? At home I can happily slide down the carpeted stairs on my butt, but on the tube it’s time consuming, inconvenient for others and frankly gross.

This means all tube stations without disabled access are now out of bounds. Even bus journeys are difficult; getting between stops takes so long that I am forced to allow for an extra two-hours of travel time.

What’s more, I find everybody sits in the reduced mobility seats, whether or not they need them.

One mobile-looking man in his early 40s stares at me from his reduced mobility seat, and doesn’t move. Another in his 70s, who is actually physically disabled, refuses to move his bag from the seat next to him; although for this it’s hard to feel too annoyed – bending down to pick up a bag is hard when you don’t have full mobility. A comparatively healthy woman gives me her seat a little way up. I feel bad because she is twice my age. 


As my strength increases I start “walking” more. Traffic lights are not green for more than 15 seconds. By the time the countdown reaches its closing seconds I am only a third of the way across. I panic.

The pavements are uneven and slippery when it rains, which makes life even slower because I do not want to fall and injure myself further. I have to wait at the middle part of the crossing to ensure it’s safe for me to cross the second half. It takes between three times and six times as long to get anywhere if I don’t want to pay for taxis every day.

But people actually talk to you. It’s like having a dog, only without the endorphins from being loved and depended on.

“I broke my leg 20 years ago. We didn’t have backpacks then – you’re almost lucky! You can carry everything yourself.” “Can I get the door? You must be tired!”

Sure, having reduced mobility sucks, but you make far more connections with traditionally hostile London strangers. A woman in a red car named Zoe offers me a ride, seeing me struggling not to slide on the still-damp streets. We talk about her children jovially for the five-minute journey. 

In another leg (hah!) of my journey, I have to stop every 15 seconds to shake my arms and hands. But then I become more optimistic. The busy inconsiderate hordes of commuters and kids on skateboards used to seem threatening, carrying me station-wards in their undertow. But instead of swamping me, they let me pause to rest, they circumnavigate, they ask if they can help, they appreciate my position. However, their consideration appears location-dependent; while passengers at Waterloo are friendly, for some inexplicable reason, nobody gives a shit about you at Victoria. Gatwick Express, perhaps?

Eventually I build enough strength to take the stairs: a crutch on one side, handrail on the other. London is still sorely underequipped for people with limited mobility, and it must be unrelentingly worse for those in wheelchairs or without my new physical strength.

But the refreshing compassion of its public restores the buzzing, faceless city’s humanity and, at times, certainly compensates for the physical hardships, and lack of facilities and funding that make you despair. The people make the city.