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UK Population Distribution

UK Population Distribution

If you're from the UK, where do you live? Are you living in the densely populated cities of the UK, such as London, Manchester, or Birmingham, or are you located in a quieter area, such as the Scottish Highlands or Wales? Wherever you are, it is important to understand that the population differs between these places. But why is this the case? What challenges can this uneven distribution bring? Let's take a look.

UK Population Distribution Characteristics

The UK has a current population of 86.8 million people (2022). The population is spread all over the nation, across England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, the distribution of the population is uneven, with areas in the UK which are heavily populated, and others which are very sparsely populated. This unevenness is one of the main characteristics of the UK population distribution.

Population distribution describes how populations differ across a nation.

Population density is how many people are in an area. This is calculated by:

The number of people The area size (square kilometres).

The four countries of the UK also account for different amounts of the UK population. England is home to the majority of the population, with Northern Ireland having the least. Cities also tend to be home to larger proportions of the population. The three most populated cities in the UK are London, Birmingham, and Manchester.

UK Population Distribution Trends

Let's take a look at some trends in UK population distribution and density:

  • More people tend to live in cities, as there are typically more opportunities there, for example, employment.
  • More people tend to migrate into cities, because of an increase in opportunities.
  • Migration to cities will increase.
  • General population density across the UK has been steadily rising.
  • Rural areas are slowly increasing in population density.

We are seeing a recent increase in counter-urbanisation. This means more people are beginning to move away from cities and urban spaces into rural areas. Many people today find cities very unattractive, due to high rates of pollution or crime. Car ownership has risen, and public transport has vastly improved, meaning people can live rurally and still travel into cities with ease.

So, our population is spread out pretty unevenly. We'll discuss the reasons for this population distribution a little later. But firstly, let's try to visualise this.

UK Population Distribution Map

Let's take a more in-depth look at the population distribution of the UK on a map. Being able to interpret a map is super important in geography. You may be asked in an exam to analyse one! Figure 1 clearly shows that there are higher population densities in the southeast and the northwest of England. The most sparsely populated areas are in the west (Wales and Northern Ireland) and the north (Scotland). The north does have an exception; the Central Belt is an area in Scotland which is home to most of the population, and spreads from Glasgow in the west, to Edinburgh in the east.

UK Population Distribution Density

We have just discussed how the density of the population across the UK differs. But why is this the case? Let's take a look at some of the factors that could affect population distribution and density.

Factors affecting population distribution and population density

The distribution of the UK population isn't random. There are actually multiple reasons as to why the distribution is the way that it is. These can be both physical and human factors.

Physical factors

Physical factors are more related to the environment or climate. Population density is much lower in areas such as northern Scotland, or Lake District, or the Pennines for example. These areas are much more mountainous, making it difficult for houses to be built. Therefore, people are much less likely to live there. Comparatively, in the southeast, the land is much flatter, which makes it much easier to build on. The weather may also have an impact; it is much colder in Scotland, and the north-eastern areas and Wales tend to receive higher amounts of rainfall. In comparison, areas in the southeast typically receive less rainfall, making the climate a little more favourable (unless you like the rain, of course!).

Human factors

The southeast is heavily populated. This area of the UK is home to London, the capital city, economic heart and government centre of the UK. Bigger cities or more connected places, like London, increase people's access to jobs, allowing people to have more money, and improve their standard of living. Compare this with rural Scotland, where opportunities are much lower.

Standard of living is the amount of wealth and goods people have, as well as their comfort levels and leisure opportunities.

Transport in the southeast is also much more efficient; there is a dense rail network, as well as the M25, M3, M1 and M20 roads which connect to surrounding areas and the rest of the UK. London is also home to multiple airports, as well as the Euro tunnel and Eurostar, allowing international connections.

Population Distribution of the UK M25 Motorway StudySmarterFig. 2 - the M25 is a motorway that circles the whole of London

The northwest also happens to be densely populated, especially in cities such as Manchester or Sheffield. This is a direct result of the Industrial Revolution. These areas, historically, were characterised by certain industries, for example, coal industries in Manchester, or steel in Sheffield. This meant that these areas began to grow, as people were living closer to the factories that provided them employment.

The Industrial Revolution was the introduction of the manufacturing industries, where goods were no longer made manually (by hand), but using machines. The Industrial Revolution began in the late 1800s.

UK Population Distribution Challenges

The way the population is distributed in the UK can cause some problems. Let's explore the population distribution challenges of the UK's high-density and low-density areas.

High-density areas

As areas become more densely populated, housing shortages may become an issue. The population is also rising in the UK, and this means there may be increased pressure on the housing industry, as more people are requiring homes. Demand for housing also increases the price; London is the most expensive city in the UK, where many people have to spend large proportions of their income on sky-high rent prices.

In Lancaster, in the North of England, you can rent a 2-bedroom flat in the city centre for £600 a month. In the centre of London, a two-bedroom flat would set you back by nearly £3,500 per month!

As cities start to expand, as a result of urban sprawl, the risk of congestion from traffic increases. With more people in an area, more cars are being used, which results in higher amounts of air pollution.

Urban sprawl describes how cities are expanding outwards as houses are built in the surrounding areas.

With a higher population density, demand for resources, such as water, is also high. This is seen in the southeast of England, where water demand is high. Combined with limited rainfall, densely populated areas like the southeast of England are in danger of water stress. Take a look at our UK Water Provision explanation for more on water supplies and population.

Low-density areas

Sparsely populated places, which have poorer employment opportunities or transport networks, are at risk of general population decline, such as the Scottish Highlands and surrounding Islands. With fewer opportunities, younger working-age people tend to leave. As people leave, a vicious cycle of decline will start to occur. As more people leave, more services close, reducing employment opportunities, and round and round it goes. This can affect the economic development of an area. Ageing populations are also one of the key challenges in more rural and less densely populated areas. Older populations can cause an increase in pressure on services such as healthcare.

The Outer Hebrides is the western area of the northern Scottish islands. Much of this area is experiencing decline. Many young people tend to be leaving much of the Hebrides, moving towards the mainland, due to limited employment or education opportunities. This is also leaving islands in the Outer Hebrides to have ageing populations.

Population Distribution of the UK Scotland and Hebredes StudySmarterFig. 3 - Northern Scotland and the Hebrides, map data: © 2022 Google Earth

Population Distribution of the UK - Key Takeaways

  • The population distribution of the UK is uneven.
  • The most densely populated areas are the southeast, the northwest, and the major cities of the UK.
  • The most sparsely populated areas are the north (Scotland) and the west (Wales, Northern Ireland).
  • There are both physical and human factors affecting population density across the UK.
  • There are challenges for both high-density areas (housing shortages, urban sprawl and water stress) and low-density areas (decline, ageing populations).

References

  1. Fig. 2: The M25 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/158652122@N02/32993952868) by Mike McBey (https://www.flickr.com/photos/158652122@N02/) licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Frequently Asked Questions about UK Population Distribution

The majority of the UK population lives in England.

The population in the UK is unevenly distributed becuase of both physical factors (climate or land type), and human factors (access to jobs or transport).

The factors that affect the UK population distribution are physical (climate, land type) and human (access to jobs, transport). 

The densely populated areas of the UK are the southeast and the northwest, as well as cities.

Most of the UK population live in England.

Final UK Population Distribution Quiz

Question

What is the current population of the UK (2022)?


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Answer

86.8 million

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Question

True or false: the distribution of the population density is uneven.



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Answer

True

Show question

Question

What is population distribution?

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Answer

This describes how the population is different across different areas.


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Question

Where is the majority of the UK population?


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Answer

England

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Question

Where is the lowest UK population?

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Answer

Northern Ireland

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Question

What are the three most densely populated cities in the UK?


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Answer

London, Birmingham, and Liverpool.

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Question

What areas of the UK have a higher population density?

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Answer

Southeast and northwest England

Show question

Question

What is counter urbanisation?


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Answer

The process of people moving away from cities and urban areas into rural areas.


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Question

What are some physical factors affecting population density in the UK?


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Answer

  • The environment - mountainous vs flat land for housing.
  • Climate - rainfall or temperatures.

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Question

What are some human factors affecting population density?


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Answer

  • London is the capital city, economic hub, government centre
  • Better job access
  • Good transport links
  • Industrial revolution (northern cities)

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Question

True or false: demand for housing makes housing cheaper.


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Answer

False

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Question

What is urban sprawl?

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Answer

The expansion of cities as houses are built in the surrounding area.

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Question

A dense population, as well as reduced rainfall, can result in what? 


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Answer

Water stress

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Question

How does a cycle of decline occur?

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Answer

People leave, resulting in services closing, which reduces employment opportunities, resulting in more people leaving.


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Question

Where is an example of a declining area?


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Answer

Outer Hebrides

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