Here are the populations of England’s largest metropolitan counties in 2020, per the Office of National Statistics:
- Greater London – 8,986,000
- West Midlands (Birmingham) – 2,915,000
- Greater Manchester – 2,807,000
- West Yorkshire (Leeds-Bradford) – 2,308,000
- Merseyside (Liverpool) – 1,409,000
- South Yorkshire (Sheffield) – 1,392,000
- Tyne & Wear (Newcastle) – 1,125,000
…and of some of the bigger official “cities” they contain:
- Birmingham – 1,145,000
- Leeds – 789,000
- Sheffield – 580,000
- Manchester– 553,000
- Bradford– 532,000
- Liverpool – 492,000
- Bristol – 466,000
- Newcastle – 296,000
- Sunderland – 276,000
- Wolverhampton – 260,000
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.
Demographia lists the UK’s most populous urban areas in 2020 as:
- London – 10,979,000
- Manchester – 2,727,000
- Birmingham-Wolverhampton – 2,605,000
- Leeds-Bradford – 1,890,000
- Glasgow – 1,259,000
- Southampton-Portsmouth – 924,000
- Liverpool – 905,000
- Newcastle – 815,000
- Nottingham – 785,000
- Sheffield – 730,000
- Bristol – 680,000
- Belfast – 635,000
- Leicester – 550,000
- Edinburgh – 530,000
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 478,000 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.