Friday, 18 March 2011

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Briefing 1247

Market towns

22% of England’s population lives in small towns. Despite overall population growth there have been declines in young families and a larger growth in the retired. One in three Small Towns experienced a decrease in population. People in Small Towns and smaller settlements, will have to travel, on average, further than 6km to access face to face Job Centres Plus services. The number of businesses in Small Towns is declining. The London and North East regions have the greatest proportions of the most deprived Small Towns whereas the East of England and the South East regions have the least.


This paper is summarised from the Commission for Rural Communities’ ‘State of the countryside update: Market towns’ which can be accessed at:


Market towns form an important locus for many rural areas for housing and employment and a hub for rural economic and service activity. They are in some ways the ‘missing link’ in England’s spatial geography. The current rural and urban definition, upon which most government spatial analysis is based, omits the separate consideration of small, medium and large sized towns. Smaller towns below 10,000 population are analysed as part of the broader ‘rural’ category, whilst those above 10,000 population are regarded as ‘urban’.

Defining and classifying market towns
Market towns can be defined in a variety of ways. The traditional image is one of a medium to large self-contained settlement providing a wide range of services to both its own population and that of a well defined hinterland of smaller rural settlements. Whilst this image is valid it does not provide a suitable basis on which to combine with administrative data. For this update all rural places with between 1,500 and 40,000 residents, free standing and in open countryside are classed as Small Towns. There are over 1,600 such places in all parts of England.

Population profile and change
The latest population estimates show that in 2009 11.4 million people were resident in small towns. Approximately one in three people in England live in a Metropolitan area whilst Small Towns account for 22% of the population. All other towns (Large, Medium and Other) 36% and remaining rural areas and small settlements 9% combined. Growth has occurred in each category from 2001 to 2009 with Small Towns seeing an increase of 469,000 people over the decade.

Service endowment
Services are of significant importance for those living in and near England’s towns. Towns not only serve their immediate population but are also important service hubs for surrounding rural areas.

Small Towns are relatively well served – they hold the highest proportions of five of the nine service types measured, Banks and Building Societies, Petrol Stations, Post Offices, Secondary Schools and Supermarkets. Small Towns appear equally well served when compared to their share of the national population. For the majority of service types they contain higher proportions of the total number of national service outlets than their proportion of total national population. The lowest provisions of service within Small Towns are cash points at 19% of national provision. Despite this apparent singular under provision the traditional image of market towns as service hubs remains valid.

Access to services has been measured as the average straight line distance between residential postcodes and the nearest service outlet. Unsurprisingly there is a familiar pattern of greater accessibility for residents in urban settlements than for those in rural areas. Of the service types examined distances to the majority of services for small town residents are similar to those experienced by residents of larger urban settlements. However, average distances to Job

Centres and Secondary schools are markedly greater.

Business and employment
Growth in the number of businesses has been unevenly spread across Small Towns, for example many in coastal areas, especially along the south coast, have experienced growth. The scattered and often isolated nature of high/low business growth towns on the map also suggests that there might be specific local circumstances determining business growth and decline.

Index of Multiple Deprivation
Clusters of the most disadvantaged Small Towns can be seen in the far south west, along the south coast, north coast of Kent, the eastern side of the Peak District, around the principle urban settlements of Cumbria and to the north and south of Newcastle upon Tyne. There is also a general pattern of greater disadvantage amongst Small Towns in more remote areas such as around the Wash, the north coast of East Anglia as well as parts of Shropshire, Herefordshire, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall and the far North West.

Employment in small towns is dominated by a few sectors - wholesale and retail, public sector jobs and manufacturing. The first two categories are facing their own challenges. The retail sector is under steady pressure of consolidation, pressure on consumer spending and increased competition from the internet. The public sector is likely to see a contraction in employment in the next few years. Manufacturing in contrast faces greater expectations of growth from government. How small towns can cope with this employment challenge and benefit from increased economic expansion is a pressing question for policy makers.

Particular areas of England face a steeper challenge than others – notably for the small towns in former coalfields, coastal areas or sparse predominantly agricultural areas. We have also seen that disadvantage is weighted by size, with smaller towns between 5,000 and 40,000 population much more prominent in disadvantage rankings.

Alan Spedding, 15 March 2011

RuSource briefings provide concise information on current farming and rural issues for rural professionals. They are circulated weekly by email and produced by Alan Spedding in association with the Arthur Rank Centre, the national focus for the rural church. Previous briefings can be accessed on the Arthur Rank Centre website at

RuSource is a voluntary project partly supported by donations and sponsorship.

© Alan Spedding 2011. This briefing may be reproduced or transmitted in its entirety free of charge. Where extracts are used, their source must be acknowledged. RuSource briefings may not be reproduced in any publication or offered for sale without the prior permission of the copyright holder.

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