Cities and regions

Frequently asked questions about the state of the English cities

What is the State of the English Cities?

The State of the English Cities is an independent report to the Department by a group of city experts led by Professor Michael Parkinson, supported by an advisory group. It provides:

  • a comprehensive audit of urban performance in England
  • a review of the impact of government policies upon cities
  • insights into how cities are changing
  • an assessment of the drivers of urban change
  • a review of lessons learned
  • explores the opportunities & challenges cities face in an international context and
  • an assessment of policy implications to enable cities to build upon the progress that has been made in recent years.

The main themes are:

  • Demographics
  • Economic competitiveness and performance
  • Liveability
  • Social cohesion
  • Governance.

Why have a State of the English Cities?

There has been a growing recognition of the importance of cities in creating sustainable communities and a better understanding is needed of the processes and dynamics of change that are reshaping cities. In addition it is an Urban White Paper (UWP) commitment and builds on the work of the Sustainable Communities Plan. The United Nation's State of the World's Cities also recommends that each country should prepare a report on the state of its own cities.

Who is responsible for the State of the English Cities?

The SOCR is funded by the Department for Local Government and Communities (Communities and Local Government). It is managed through the Research analysis and Evaluation (RAE) division and Urban Policy Directorate (UPD) within Communities and Local Government. A Project Team consists of policy officials and analysts across Communities and Local Government.

Who was involved in the work?

The project has been commissioned to a consortium of researchers, led by Professor Michael Parkinson of the European Institute of Urban Affairs Liverpool John Moores University. Other key members include the Universities of Sheffield, Newcastle, Glasgow, Cambridge, Oxford Brookes, the National Institute for Social Research; Brookings Institution in Washington; and Llewelyn-Davies.

What is the evidence base?

  • Based on nine contributing reports analysing academic and consultancy literature, international evidence, public attitudes and demographic trends, case studies in 12 cities and interviews with over 250 policy makers. 
  • Cities are defined in terms of their physical extent and not in terms of local authority areas or administrative boundaries.  It created a set of 56 Primary Urban Areas (PUAs) with populations over 125,000.  Many of these PUAs therefore contain several local authorities. 
  • The report is underpinned by a set of key indicators of urban performance - the State of the Cities Database (SOCD).  It provides data on over 60 indicators at three time points and contains over 2 million pieces of individual data.  The time points were: the most recent available period eg: 2001, 2002, 2003; the position in the middle 1990s and at the beginning of the 1990s. 
  • The SOCD allows us to identify in great detail recent changes in English cities.  It will be sustained in future by government and will allow future monitoring of cities and the impact of policies.

What are the indicators used?

  • Over 60 key indicators that draw upon the analytical framework and drivers of urban success developed in earlier work for the Department, 'Competitive European Cities: Where Do the Core Cities Stand?  These are: economic diversity, skilled workforce, connectivity, innovation in firms and organisations, quality of life and strategic capacity to deliver long term development strategies.  
  • The indicators of these drivers are grouped under four broad headings: social cohesion, economic competitiveness, liveability and governance

Is the whole of the UK being looked at or just England?

The focus will only be on England, as for example Scotland have carried out their own SOCR. However, continued communication will be taking place with the other territories (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).

What are the case study areas?

The case study areas were:

  • London,
  • Manchester,
  • Birmingham,
  • Bristol,
  • Cambridge,
  • Derby,
  • Burnley Leicester,
  • Leeds,
  • Sunderland,
  • Sheffield,
  • Medway.

Why were these case studies selected?

The case studies were chosen to illustrate the diversity of urban areas in England in terms of size, geographical location, economic performance, social challenges and range of policy interventions.  We selected representatives from: the capital city, from the 8 Core Cities with a range of economic and social performance, smaller cities facing significant economic and social challenges in the north and west and south and east; and smaller, more economically successful cities in the north and west and the south and east.  

Has this been done anywhere else before?

Many countries have carried out there own SOCR, including the

  • United States "US State of the Cities Report"
  • New Zealand "Quality of Life in New Zealand's eight largest cities"
  • South Africa "State of South Africa's Cities Report".

There have also been SOCR's (or equivalent) in

  • Scotland "Review of Scotland's Cities - The analysis"
  • Canada "Canada's Urban Strategy (CUS) - Task force response to challenge"
  • France "The European reach of French Cities (DATAR)".

Australia have had a state of Australian cities conference in December 2003. The European Union have published "The Urban Audit: towards the benchmarking of quality of life in 58 European cities" and the United Nations (UN) have published a "State of the World's Cities Report".

A new 'State of the Worlds Cities' was launched at the World Urban Forum in Barcelona, September 2004.

Where are the 56 Primary Urban Areas?

 Aldershot   Coventry  Luton   Reading
 Barnsley  Crawley   Manchester   Rochdale
 Birkenhead   Derby   Mansfield   Sheffield
 Birmingham   Doncaster   Middlesbrough   Southampton
 Blackburn   Gloucester   Milton Keynes   Southend
 Blackpool    Grimsby   Newcastle  Stoke
 Bolton    Hastings   Northampton  Sunderland
 Bournemouth    Huddersfield   Norwich  Swindon
 Bradford   Hull  Nottingham   Telford
 Brighton    Ipswich  Oxford   Wakefield
 Bristol   Leeds   Peterborough   Warrington
 Burnley   Leicester   Plymouth   Wigan
 Cambridge    Liverpool   Portsmouth  Worthing
 Chatham   London   Preston   York

Why did the analysis focus on 56 cities?

Part of the analysis covers all towns and cities (at local authority area level and regional level). The in-depth focus on 56 cities reflect data constraints and availability. It also reflects the timeframe and resources involved. Many of the other international State of the Cities Reports only focus on a limited number of cities. The number of case studies reflects what is reasonable within the timeframe and resources. The number of case studies is reasonable given the focus will be on gathering qualitative information.

What is a Primary Urban Areas (PUA)?

The definitions of the 56 Primary Urban Areas (PUAs) started from the official set of Urban Areas (UA), which are based on 2001 built-up areas.  These Urban Areas were defined by the Department in conjunction with Ordnance Survey. 

The research is following the United Nations guideline to identify major cities in terms of their "bricks and mortar" physical extent and not in terms of local authority areas.  Some of the available data then had to be approximated as a "best-fit"  [1] in terms of whole local authority areas. 

This approach, based on physical extent rather than local authority areas, has 2 key benefits:

1. it provides reasonably comparable definitions, avoiding such
misleading comparisons as that between the very broadly-defined
Leeds LA and very narrowly-defined Manchester LA

2. it reflects the "common sense" understanding of anyone who looks at,
for example, Manchester and Salford in the real world - or indeed an ordinary map - and sees just one city rather than two.

From this, a set of 56 PUAs were created which have a minimum size cut-off of 125,000 (based on 2001 population) for analytical purposes.  One feature of the PUAs is that they split some sprawling Urban Areas which include more than one substantially separate town or city (e.g. Leeds and Bradford).

The 56 PUAs represent around 55% of the population of England. They were considered to represent what is generally considered to be "urban England".  As such the 56 PUAs were always intended purely as an analytical device for the State of the Cities Report (SOCR) and not as the basis for policy making.

What should I do if I would like to get more information?

See the summary scoping report on Communities and Local Government website. If you have further queries please email


[ 1 ]  The official definitions of Urban Areas (UA) are based on a very-fine grain set of "building block" areas, so that they can reflect the boundaries of physically built-up areas as accurately as possible.  These very small building-blocks cannot be used for the SOCD because many of the statistics of most interest to the research are not available for such small areas.  As a result, the best that can be done is to produce the "best-fit" of larger building-block areas to the PUA boundaries.

Updated: 7 March 2006


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