Classification systems

Government data sources do not use a consistent rural/area classification system.  Broadly speaking, the sources used by this website can be divided into four groups:

  • Classification system is available, whereby all the data is classified according to the Government’s 2004 classification system for small areas (see below).  However, only two sources provide this, namely the British Crime Survey and the English Housing Survey.
  • Classification system is available in principle but not in practice, either because the relevant data in the publicly available dataset is suppressed for supposed data confidentiality reasons (e.g. the Labour Force Survey and associated Annual Population Survey) or because the method of classification is neither clear nor documented (e.g. the Health Survey for England).
  • A less than optimal classification system is derivable: many sources provide data by local authority and this can be used to analyse rural/urban differences using the DEFRA 2009 classification system (see below).
  • No classification system is possible: where data is only obtainable via Government publications rather than from the underlying detailed data, it is usually not possible to undertake any rural/urban analyses.

In this context, the indicators in this website define ‘rural’ areas in a variety of different ways, with the selection determined by data availability.

The government’s preferred level of rural/urban classification is at a small area level.  Its 2004 classification system for small areasclassifies a small area as ‘urban’ if the majority of its population live within settlements of more than 10,000 people and as ‘rural’ if this is not the case.  Within the rural category, there is a further subdivision into ‘town and fringe’, village’ and ‘hamlets and isolated dwellings’, giving an overall 4-way classification system. 1

In principle, all the national survey datasets could include the small area rural/urban classification system, based on each household’s address.  In practice, however, this is not typically done, with the only overt exceptions being the British Crime Survey and the English Housing Survey 2.

Rather, what many data sources record is the lower tier local authority (district councils, unitary authorities, metropolitan boroughs and London boroughs), often referred to as local authority district.  Using the DEFRA 2009 classification system 3, each lower tier authority is classified as one of:

  • Very rural”: if 80% or more of their population live in either rural settlements or market towns, where a ‘rural settlement’ is any settlement of less than 10,000 people and a ‘market town’ is a settlement of between 10,000 and 30,000 people which provides certain functions and services to its wider rural hinterland. 4
  • Mostly rural”: if between 50% and 80% of their population live in rural settlements or market towns. 5
  • Part rural”: if between 26% and 50% of their population live in rural settlements or market towns. 6
  • ‘Major urban’: if not any of the above but either at least 50% or at least 100,000 of their population live in an urban area with a total population of 750,000 or more.
  • ‘Large urban’: if not any of the above but either at least 50% or at least 50,000 of their population live in an urban area with a total population of 250,000 or more.
  • ‘Other urban’: if not any of the above.

In most of the graphs on this website, the ‘major urban’, ‘large urban’ and ‘other urban’ districts are then amalgamated into a single ‘urban’ category.

Where it is not possible to use lower tier local authority designations, upper tier local authority classifications have sometimes had to be used.  This is, for example, the case for social service statistics given that social services is an upper tier (e.g. county) rather than lower tier (e.g. district) responsibility.  Each upper tier authority is classified as: ‘very rural’, ‘mostly rural’, ‘part rural’ or urban using the same definitions as above (but with the three urban categories all grouped together).

These differing classification systems illustrate that there is no single ‘correct’ rural-urban classification.  In fact, there are at least three types of decision involved in any classification: 7

  • Level of magnification‘: as discussed above, the ideal would be small area classifications but most data is only classified at the lower tier local authority level.
  • Method of identification‘ – i.e. how to decide whether an area should be classified as rural or urban.  The size of the settlement is the main starting point, but, as per the discussion above, the lower tier local authority classifications involve a variety of other rules.
  • Strictness of definition‘ – i.e. where to set the cut-off point between rural and urban.  The lower tier local authority classifications involve a cut-off point which results in two-thirds of the population being in the urban categories and one-third being in the various rural categories.

Another implication of the discussion above is that urban/rural classifications are determined by the classification of the majority of the population in the area and there may well be a significant proportion of the population in the area who are in the opposite classification.  So, for example, a ‘rural area’ may well contain many ‘urban people’ and vice versa.  This inevitably tends to lessen any observed differences in statistics between types of area.

Lower tier local authority classifications (districts)

As listed in the DEFRA 2009 classification system.


'Very rural' 'Mostly rural' 'Part rural' Urban
Allerdale
Babergh
Breckland
Chichester
Copeland
Cornwall 8
Cotswold
Craven
Daventry
Derbyshire Dales
East Cambridgeshire
East Lindsey
Eden
Fenland
Forest Heath
Forest of Dean
Hambleton
Harborough
Huntingdonshire
Isle of Wight
Isles of Scilly
Maldon
Melton
Mendip
Mid Devon
Mid Suffolk
Mid Sussex
North Dorset
North Kesteven
North Norfolk
Purbeck
Ribble Valley
Richmondshire
Rutland
Ryedale
Selby
South Cambridgeshire
South Hams
South Holland
South Lakeland
South Norfolk
South Northamptonshire
South Oxfordshire
Stratford-on-Avon
Suffolk Coastal
Teignbridge
Torridge
Uttlesford
Wealden
West Devon
West Dorset
West Lindsey
West Oxfordshire
West Somerset
Wychavon
Aylesbury Vale
Bassetlaw
Braintree
Central Bedfordshire 9
Cheshire East 10
Dover
Durham 11
East Devon
East Dorset
East Hampshire
East Northamptonshire
East Riding of Yorkshire
Herefordshire
High Peak
Horsham
King's Lynn and West Norfolk
Lewes
Lichfield
Malvern Hills
Newark and Sherwood
North Devon
North East Derbyshire
North Lincolnshire
North Somerset
North Warwickshire
North West Leicestershire
Northumberland 12
Rother
Rushcliffe
Sedgemoor
Sevenoaks
Shropshire 13
South Bucks
South Kesteven
South Somerset
St. Edmundsbury
Staffordshire Moorlands
Stroud
Tandridge
Tendring
Test Valley
Tewkesbury
Tonbridge and Malling
Vale of White Horse
Waverley
West Lancashire
Wiltshire 14
Winchester
Amber Valley
Ashford
Basingstoke and Deane
Bath and NE Somerset
Bedford
Bolsover
Boston
Brentwood
Broadland
Bromsgrove
Calderdale
Cannock Chase
Carlisle
Cherwell
Cheshire West and Chester 15
Chiltern
Chorley 16
Colchester
Dacorum 17
East Hertfordshire
East Staffordshire
Eastleigh 18
Epping Forest 19
Fylde 20
Great Yarmouth
Guildford
Harrogate
Hart
Hertsmere
Hinckley and Bosworth
Kettering
Lancaster
Maidstone
Mole Valley 21
New Forest
North Hertfordshire
Redcar and Cleveland 22
Rugby
Scarborough
Shepway
South Derbyshire
South Staffordshire
St. Albans
Stafford
Swale
Taunton Deane
Tunbridge Wells
Wakefield 23
Warwick
Waveney
Wellingborough
West Berkshire
Wycombe
Wyre 24
Wyre Forest

'Major urban'
Barking and Dagenham
Barnet
Bexley
Birmingham
Bolton
Bradford
Brent
Bromley
Broxbourne
Bury
Camden
City of London
Croydon
Dartford
Dudley
Ealing
Elmbridge
Enfield
Epsom and Ewell
Gateshead
Gravesham
Greenwich
Hackney
Hammersmith and Fulham
Haringey
Harrow
Havering
Hillingdon
Hounslow
Islington
Kensington and Chelsea
Kingston-upon-Thames
Kirklees
Knowsley
Lambeth
Leeds
Lewisham
Liverpool
Manchester
Merton
Newcastle upon Tyne
Newham
North Tyneside
Oldham
Redbridge
Richmond-upon-Thames
Rochdale
Runnymede
Salford
Sandwell
Sefton
Solihull
South Tyneside
Southwark
Spelthorne
St. Helens
Stockport
Sunderland
Sutton
Tameside
Three Rivers
Tower Hamlets
Trafford
Walsall
Waltham Forest
Wandsworth
Watford
Westminster
Wigan
Woking
Wolverhampton

'Large urban'
Adur
Arun
Blaby
Blackpool
Bournemouth
Bracknell Forest
Brighton and Hove
Bristol
Broxtowe
Castle Point
Christchurch
Coventry
Erewash
Fareham
Gedling
Gosport
Havant
Kingston-upon-Hull
Leicester
Middlesbrough
Newcastle-under-Lyme
Nottingham
Oadby and Wigston
Poole
Portsmouth
Preston
Reading
Rochford
Rotherham
Sheffield
South Gloucestershire
South Ribble
Southampton
Southend-on-Sea
Stockton-on-Tees
Stoke-on-Trent
Wirral
Wokingham
Worthing

'Other urban'
Ashfield
Barnsley 25
Barrow-in-Furness
Basildon
Blackburn with Darwen
Burnley
Cambridge
Canterbury
Charnwood 26
Chelmsford 27
Cheltenham
Chesterfield
Corby
Crawley
Darlington
Doncaster 28
Derby
Eastbourne
Exeter
Gloucester
Halton
Harlow
Hartlepool
Hastings
Hyndburn
Ipswich
Lincoln
Luton
Mansfield
Medway
Milton Keynes
North East Lincolnshire
Northampton
Norwich
Nuneaton and Bedworth
Oxford
Pendle
Peterborough
Plymouth
Redditch
Reigate and Banstead
Rossendale
Rushmoor
Slough
Stevenage
Surrey Heath
Swindon
Tamworth
Telford and Wrekin
Thanet
Thurrock
Torbay
Warrington
Welwyn Hatfield
Weymouth and Portland
Windsor and Maidenhead
Worcester
York

Upper tier local authority classifications

Where the upper tier authority is also a lower tier authority (i.e. unitary authorities, London and metropolitan boroughs)

The allocation to ‘very rural’, ‘mostly rural’, part rural’ and ‘urban’ is as per that for the lower tier classifications above.

Where the upper tier authority is a grouping of lower tier authorities (i.e. a county)

‘Very rural’ ‘Mostly rural’ ‘Part rural’ Urban
Cornwall and The Isles of Scilly Cambridgeshire
Cumbria
Devon
Dorset
Lincolnshire
Norfolk
North Yorkshire
Oxfordshire
Somerset
Suffolk
Buckinghamshire
Derbyshire
East Sussex
Essex
Gloucestershire
Hampshire
Kent
Lancashire
Leicestershire
Northamptonshire
Nottinghamshire
StaffordshireWarwickshire
West Sussex
Worcestershire
Hertfordshire
Surrey

In practice, these allocations mean that the only upper tier authority that is classified as ‘very rural’ is Cornwall and The Isles of Scilly because all of the ‘very rural’ lower tier authorities are combined with other authorities at the upper tier level.  For example, the ‘very rural’ lower tier authorities of Craven, Hambleton, Richmondshire, Ryedale and Selby are combined with the ‘part rural’ Harrogate and Scarborough to form the ‘mostly rural’ North Yorkshire upper tier authority.  Because of its consequent very small population, ‘very rural’ is therefore not shown on the any of the upper tier graphs.

Graph 3: Retirement-age over time

Rural/urban analyses can be undertaken using most of the major surveys, the main limitation being that the Labour Force Survey does not have any rural/urban codes and its substitute for work-related statistics – the Annual Population Survey – only goes back to 2004.  The table below provides some summary information about some of these sources.

Subject area Data source Rural/urban classification Earliest data
Income Households Below Average Income dataset Districts 1994/95
Work Annual Population Survey Districts 2004
Work and Pensions Longitudinal Study, DWP Districts 2000
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings Districts 2002
Geographical Analyses, HM Revenue & Customs (tax credits) Districts 2003
Education English National Pupil Database Districts 2002
Department for Education publications Upper tier local authorities Varies by subject
Health Key population and vital statistics, ONS Districts 1998
Conception statistics, ONS Districts 2001
Mortality Statistics Division, ONS Districts 1991
Housing Stock data from the English Housing Survey Small area urban/rural classifications 2006 29
Household data from the English Housing Survey Small area urban/rural classifications 2008/09 30
DCLG Statutory Homelessness Statistical Releases Districts 2003
Services Family Resources Survey Districts 1994/95
Commission for Social Care Inspection performance assessment framework (PAF) reports Upper tier local authorities 2004/05
Social cohesion British Crime Survey Small area urban/rural classifications 2000
1. This is a slight simplification.  First, as well as this 4-way classification based on settlement size, there is a 2-way classification (‘sparse’ or ‘less sparse’ based on population density, giving an overall 8-way classification system.  Second, there are actually two levels of small area (see the page on levels of geography): the definition in the main text is for the lowest level (output area); at the next level up (lower super output area or ward), the area is classified as ‘urban’ if the majority of output areas within it are classified as ‘urban’ and as ‘rural’ if this is not the case. 
2. The small area classification in the English Housing Survey is actually only available for data from 2006 onwards.  Furthermore, for reasons that are not clear, the survey data also includes an alternative – and conflicting – rural/urban classification system, whereby the surveyor of the property allocates it to one six possible categories, three of which are rural. 
3. The 2009 methodology is very similar, but not identical, to the 2005 methodology used prior to April 2009. 
4. DEFRA uses the term ‘rural-80’ for this group. 
5. DEFRA use the term ‘rural-50’ for this group. 
6. DEFRA uses the term ‘significant rural’ for this group. 
7. Anyone interested in a more detailed discussion of some of these issues may want to read the technical documentation associated with the DEFRA 2009 classification system
8. Formed in 2009 from Caradon, Carrick, Kerrier, North Cornwall, Penwith and Restormel 
9. Formed in 2009 from Mid Bedfordshire and South Bedfordshire 
10. Formed in 2009 from Congleton, Crewe & Nantwich and Macclesfield 
11. Formed in 2009 from Chester-le-Street, Derwentside, Durham, Easington, Sedgefield, Teesdale and Wear Valley 
12. Formed in 2009 from Alnwick, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Blyth Valley, Castle Morpeth, Tynedale and Wansbeck 
13. Formed in 2009 from Bridgnorth, North Shropshire, Oswestry, Shrewsbury & Atcham and South Shropshire 
14. Formed in 2009 from Kennet, North Wiltshire, Salisbury and West Wiltshire 
15. Formed in 2009 from Chester, Ellesmere Port & Neston and Vale Royal 
16. ‘Large urban’ prior to 2009 
17. ‘Major urban’ prior to 2009 
18. ‘Large urban’ prior to 2009 
19. ‘Major urban’ prior to 2009 
20. ‘Large urban’ prior to 2009 
21. ‘Major urban’ prior to 2009 
22. ‘Large urban’ prior to 2009 
23. ‘Major urban’ prior to 2009 
24. ‘Large urban’ prior to 2009 
25. ‘Part rural’ prior to 2009 
26. ‘Part rural’ prior to 2009 
27. ‘Part rural’ prior to 2009 
28. ‘Part rural’ prior to 2009 
29. The data for 2005 and earlier uses a related, but different, classification system, whose formulation is not documented. 
30. The data for 2007/08 and earlier includes the district only.