The House of Commons Library has published a ‘city/town classification’ of constituencies and local authorities. This can assist in understanding differences, trends and inequalities across Great Britain – such as how large cities differ from small towns. It’s intended to be an alternative to existing rural/urban classifications of areas, which may overlook some of these trends.

Here we look at how the classification works in practice, asking how cities and towns differ in five specific areas:

  • House prices
  • Population, age and migration
  • Young people going to university
  • Broadband availability
  • Commuting habits

Classifying cities and towns

The basic idea is to assign each settlement in Great Britain according to an adapted version of the classification recently developed by the Centre for Towns:

  • 12 Core Cities: twelve major population and economic centres (e.g. London, Glasgow, Sheffield)
  • 24 Other Cities: other settlements with a population of more than 175,000 (e.g. Leicester, Portsmouth, Aberdeen)
  • 119 Large Towns: settlements with a population between 60,000 and 174,999 (e.g. Warrington, Hemel Hempstead, Farnborough)
  • 270 Medium Towns: settlements with a population between 25,000 and 59,999 (e.g. Gravesend, Jarrow, Exmouth)
  • 674 Small Towns: settlements with a population between 7,500 and 24,999 (e.g. Falmouth, New Romney, Holbeach)
  • 6,116 Villages and small communities: settlements with a population of less than 7,500 (e.g. Chapel-en-le-Frith, Cottenham, Menai Bridge)

This classification isn’t intended to resolve long-standing disputes about which settlements deserve to be called ‘cities’, ‘towns’, or ‘villages’. A full description of the classification can be found in our research briefing, where you can also find data downloads relating to the constituency and local authority classifications.

House prices

It will probably come as no surprise that London has the highest average house prices in the country – more than double the national average. Elsewhere, however, it is Core Cities outside London that have the lowest average prices: Liverpool’s prices are lowest in this group, and Bristol’s are the highest. The next-lowest prices are found in Other Cities, where Bradford has the lowest prices and Brighton & Hove has the highest. Large, Medium and Small Towns have roughly similar prices on average, while Villages and Small Communities have prices around 25% higher than towns, at just over £300,000.

The chart below shows average prices in 2017 compared with five years earlier.

House prices in cities and towns in Great Britian

London has seen the largest rise in prices over the last five years, at 43%. Prices in villages have risen by the lowest proportion – 20%. Note that because these are mean averages, they will be skewed by very high prices paid in certain areas. Means aren’t often used for house prices, so these figures aren’t comparable with averages published by the ONS and elsewhere.

Source data: ONS, House price statistics for small areas

Population, age and migration

Between 2006 and 2016, the population growth in cities was higher than in towns and villages. London’s population grew 15%, while Core Cities outside London grew by 10% (with a high of 17% in Manchester). The population in Other Cities grew 9% (with a high of 18% in Coventry). By contrast, the population in Small Towns grew 5%.

The average age of the population in Core Cities and Other Cities has remained unchanged. But in towns and villages the average age has grown: towns and villages already had an older population than cities on average in 2006, and this gap has grown.

Population ages in towns and cities in Great Britain

Cities had much higher long-term net international migration (more people coming from abroad than leaving to go overseas) than towns and villages over this period. However, more people in cities also left to live in smaller settlements elsewhere in this country, resulting in negative internal migration. In towns, the opposite was true: international migration was lower than cities, but migration from other parts of the country was higher.

Migration flows from cities and towns in Great Britain

Among Core Cities outside London, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Nottingham had the highest net international migration. Meanwhile Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham had the largest negative internal migration to other parts of Great Britain. Among Other Cities, Coventry, Luton and Aberdeen had the highest net international migration. Among towns, net international migration was highest in Boston and lowest in Elmbridge (Surrey). Net internal migration was highest in Christchurch and lowest in Oxford.

This data is based on local authority areas and only accounts for changes due to migration, and not natural change (i.e. births and deaths).

ONS, Annual mid-year population estimates (via Nomis)

ONS, Local Area Migration Indicators, UK

Young people going to university

London constituencies have the highest percentage of 18-year olds entering full-time higher education, at 42%. Entry rates outside London are broadly similar between different classifications, ranging from 28% to 34% – although Other City and Core City constituencies outside London and Other City constituencies have rates slightly below town and village constituencies.

However, the change in entry rates over the past decade varies substantially between cities and towns. Broadly, larger settlements had higher increases in young people going to university: Village and Small Town constituencies have had the smallest increase in higher education entry rates, while Core Cities have had the largest increases.

So while cities outside of London have the lowest university entry rates, they have also experienced some of the highest growth in entry rates since 2006.

Higher education rates in cities and towns in Great Britain

Data source: UCAS 2017 End of Cycle Report


Broadband availability

Availability of fast broadband connections is, unsurprisingly, worse in rural areas than urban areas. This is reflected in the ‘Village or Smaller’ row in the table below – only 81% of premises in villages have access to superfast speeds (30 Mbps or above), compared with 96-98% in towns and cities. Also, almost one in 10 lines in villages have connectivity below the Government’s planned universal service obligation (USO) – i.e. they can’t receive download speeds of at least 10 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps.

However, there are also some differences between towns and cities on broadband connectivity measures. While superfast availability is similar in cities and towns, availability of ultrafast speeds (300 Mbps or above) differs – availability is 66%-67% in Core Cities, but 29% in Small Towns. However, towns fare better than cities when it comes to the USO – while around 1% of lines in towns are below the USO, this rises to 1.3% in London. Among Core Cities outside London the average is 1.5%, with the percentage ranging from 0.5% in Newcastle to 2.2% in Manchester. While Other Cities appear to have worse USO availability than Core Cities, this is driven entirely by Hull, where 17.5% of premises were below USO in January 2018. If we exclude Hull, then 1.2% of premises in Other Cities were below the Universal Service Obligation, ranging from 0.3% in Swindon to 2.3% in Coventry.

Broadband connection speeds in towns and cities in Great Britain.

Data source: Ofcom, Connected Nations Spring 2018 update

Commuting habits

The size of the settlements people live in is related to commuting habits. The table below shows data from the 2011 census on how far people said they travelled to work. On average, people in England and Wales travelled 9.1 miles. People living in London travelled the smallest distance – almost a mile less than those living in Core Cities outside London. Among these cities, distances travelled varied from 7.5 miles in Birmingham to 9.5 miles in Newcastle. Among Other Cities, distances varied from 6.8 miles in Bradford to 11.9 in Brighton & Hove.

People living in Small Towns tended to travel further (10.2 miles) than those living in Large Towns (8.9 miles). But those living in towns which near Core Cities (marked here as ‘in Conurbation’ – see here for more explanation) typically travelled over a mile less to work than those living in the same size settlements elsewhere. Of all towns, those living in Haslemere had the largest average travel distances, at 16 miles.

Source: NOMIS 2011 census data

Commuting distance in towns and cities in Great Britain.

Find out more

Read more about our city & town classification, including how to use it to analyse local data yourself, in our research briefing.

Carl Baker is a Senior Library Clerk specialising in Social and General Statistics in the House of Commons Library.