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Use and Understanding of the Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification




3.1 These findings are based on a desk search of data sets and reports that use urban rural classification systems, and assessing their usage amongst various stakeholders. The desk research involved a comprehensive examination of the range of publications and data produced by both the Scottish Government and UK Government, local government departments, agencies and academic institutions and private bodies. The research assessed the range of classifications used by both analysts and policy makers throughout the UK and in particular within Scotland. A full list of identified reports which were assessed for the purposes of this study is provided in Appendix 5.

Defining Urban and Rural Areas

3.2 The use of urban and rural classifications for official purposes stretches as far back as the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The structure of local government itself was based on a clear distinction between 'urban', i.e. county boroughs, municipal boroughs and urban districts, and 'rural', i.e. rural districts and most counties. Subsequently these two types of area formed the basis for the reporting of a wide range of official statistics, especially the Census of Population. Since the mid-1950's onwards there have been several approaches that have evolved to define types of area - primarily using population density, land use and catchment area for shopping. However, it was not until the local government reforms in the 1970's, spurred on by an increasing conflict between local government boundaries and geographical development leading to urban land across administrative boundaries, that different approaches were required to define urban and rural areas. As the use of classification systems has progressed, they have been used to support research and policy formation on key issues such as transport, education and health.

3.3 Use of a classification system aids understanding of the issues facing urban, accessible rural and remote rural areas which are likely to have differing needs both in terms of infrastructure and the socio-economic factors affecting communities. Over the past two decades a number of different classification systems have been developed in order to help define urban and rural areas, to help clarify the nature of communities and to create guidelines for defining boundaries between 'urban' and 'rural' according to: geographical perimeters, e.g. Local Authority boundaries; by socio-economic parameters, e.g. population density, social deprivation, settlement size; or spatial parameters, e.g. accessibility by drive times.

3.4 There have been a number of different approaches to defining urban and rural areas within government in the UK. The core elements of these are:

  • Administrative boundaries which are used to define major 'urban' areas based upon former metropolitan authority and current unity authority boundaries.
  • Urban land use and population size as represented by the ONS Urban Areas for England and Wales.
  • Characteristics of places as in the classification of Local Authority districts and wards used by the Countryside Agency and various ONS classifications of administrative areas.
  • Settlement size and accessibility to key services. The data from these two indicators are combined in the SG classification.

3.5 Three approaches have been commonly employed in determining urban areas. These include: tracing the extent of the built up area; classifying levels of population density; and finally, plotting the functional area of the town which includes not only the built up area but large settlements within the 'countryside'. By comparison, commonly used key factors for assessing rurality include: extensive land use; economic activity / employment levels; community cohesion / governance; and population density 5. Those who have created classification systems have tried to capture the multiplicity of types of rural area that exist, ranging, for example, from small settlements on the fringe of large towns and cities to remote villages and hamlets; from 'green belt' agriculture areas through to areas of extensive arable farming; the economic and social changes that have taken place in rural areas linking them more closely to an urban style of life and work. More recent definitions tend to have crossover areas, e.g. remote small town, accessible rural and rural renaissance.

Range and Type of Classification Systems

3.6 During the course of the desk research a wide range of urban rural classification systems were identified in the UK. Some classification systems could be called 'legacy' systems, because they have been abandoned - superseded by newer, more effective models or modified urban rural classification systems. However, it should be borne in mind that many of the older systems are referred to and acknowledged in recent reports and data sets, due to the dated nature of the source information, e.g. old census material. These older systems are now seen to be historically valid, but no longer current with the needs of study classifications.

3.7 All identified urban rural classification systems (inclusive of those seen to be 'legacy' systems) are detailed in a more comprehensive list which we have included in Appendix 3. In addition, Appendix 3 also details other geographic classifications that do not have an urban-rural dimension including the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation ( SIMD), the Postcode Address File ( PAF) and the geodemographic segmentation systems ACORN / MOSAIC. The key elements of each system are detailed, alongside any perceived benefits or limitations each may have.

3.8 The urban rural classification identified as being most widely used in Scotland is the Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification system. Others used include the Randall Classification, Highlands and Islands Enterprise ( HIE) Fragility System and Scottish Small Towns Classification. In Northern Ireland the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency ( NISRA) Urban Rural Definition is predominantly used. In England and Wales, most use is made of the Urban Settlement Definition provided by the ONS, which is based on land use, and additionally the Administrative Area Classification Definition, based on socio-economic variables (again provided by the ONS). DEFRA's Classification of Local Authority Districts and Unitary Authorities in England is made use of to a lesser extent.

Summaries of the Urban Rural Classification Systems Used in the UK

3.9 In Scotland, the majority of reports produced within central Scottish Government departments and also within the local government environment tend to use some version of the Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification. Most of the reports that have used the SG Urban Rural Classification system have focused upon socio-economic aspects i.e. studies have focused on key areas such as employment, household expenditure / living standards, education and health.

3.10 The Scottish Government developed data zones in 2004. These provide the geographic building blocks for the Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics and the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation which provide the Scottish Government and its partners with the ability to monitor and develop policies at a small area level. As the SG Urban Rural Classification is based on accessibility, data zones were not designed to nest within it and as a result some straddle the SG Urban Rural Classification. The Scottish Government has carried out analysis to identify the extent and measure the effect of this straddling and determined that the fit between data zones and the SG Urban Rural Classification was good.

3.11 Reports examining socio-economic issues such as health, education, employment / deprivation or social changes, e.g. demographic change through migration, generally make use of the SG Urban Rural Classification system. Other systems have been employed in cases where in-depth regional detail is required. These tend to be more locally focused studies which are commissioned or undertaken by local government and agencies, e.g. community studies assessing the local impacts of policy or change of infrastructure, and they make use of Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics and the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (both using data zones) and also HIE's Fragility Index.

3.12 The Scottish Small Towns Task Group was set up in 2005 by the South of Scotland Alliance, supported by COSLA, and undertook a detailed examination of the role of small towns within the socio-economic fabric of Scotland. The researchers involved with the study based their classifications around the Scottish Urban Rural Classification system, but widened the parameters for the limits of population size to define a 'small town'. Their report 6, from 2006, stated "what is important is the role and potential of small towns rather than adherence to strict and inflexible population criteria. There are many settlements which function as small towns with either populations above 20,000 or below 2,000". Therefore, this 'Small Town Classification' may be useful at a local level rather than at a national level.

3.13 The Randall system which categories Scottish local authorities as rural or urban on the basis of population density has been used less frequently in research studies, but due to its basic nature it is more likely to be used as a quick 'spot check' method than for the purposes of detailed study.

3.14 In England and Wales two classification systems seem to be widely used amongst both policy makers and analysts. These are both issued by the ONS on behalf of the Office of The Deputy Prime Minister / DEFRA / Countryside Agency:

  • The Urban Settlement Definition is based on land use (England and Wales). The basis of the definition is land with an irreversibly urban use and it is independent of administrative area boundaries.
  • The Administrative Area Classification Definition is based on socio-economic variables. The Countryside Agency classification of rural and urban administrative areas is based on a range of socio-economic characteristics of the population at Local Authority and ward levels.

3.15 DEFRA's Classification of Local Authority Districts and Unitary Authorities in England is made use of to a lesser extent than the Urban Settlement Definition or the Administrative Area Classification Definition and complements the ONS Rural and Urban Area Definitions. These two DEFRA approaches adopt different methodologies designed to reflect the numerical significance of settlement size in different administrative area frameworks. For this reason the classification should not be regarded as a definition of the level of rurality within Local Authority Districts. This term is reserved for the level of rurality at smaller geographic scales. Both methods are seen as tools for the purposes of presenting and analysing data that are only available at Local Authority District level on a comprehensive national basis. The classification is not usually used to inform detailed policy design by local government or agencies, e.g. for targeting local service delivery.

3.16 In Northern Ireland, the NISRA Urban Rural Definition is the most popular urban rural classification used on a regional basis as it addresses the issue of urban sprawl and a key issue that Northern Irish settlements have historically not been clearly defined between 'urban' and 'rural'. This system is tailored to address the characteristic settlement patterns within Northern Ireland. For the purpose of this definition, statutory settlement development limits provided by the DOE Planning Service have been used as the best geographical delineation for defining settlements. It should be noted that settlement development limits are designated by the NI Planning Service in order to protect the character of settlements and prevent urban sprawl into the surrounding countryside whilst providing for future development needs. Their purpose is not solely to define settlements geographically. In an attempt to clarify the urban rural definitions, three criteria have been identified as relevant in ascribing urban characteristics to settlements: population size, population density and service provision. It was recognised that none of these criteria in isolation was sufficient and that a combination of these data indices was required to classify settlements, particularly for use by central government departments.

3.17 It is apparent that there are fairly clear divisions in usage of classification systems according to country (Scotland, England & Wales, Northern Ireland) when undertaking countrywide assessments - these 'tailored', specific systems are created to take into account the administrative differences of each country. However, when undertaking more 'localised' assessments, researchers tend to use more specialist classification systems that allow for a very detailed examination of local area socio-economic issues. In locally focused studies, the diversification of classification systems is much wider. It should be borne in mind that the SG Urban Rural Classification cannot be applied in all instances and it is not designed to replace other systems.

3.18 Use of statistics by policy makers tends to follow researchers' (analysts') lead, and policy decisions may be informed by a range of research studies or custom data which has been extracted from specialist databases. (This general trend has been identified whilst looking at the executive summaries of the reports wherein government and commissioning Local Authorities have acknowledged the recommendations of internal research departments or external consultants). Appropriate classification system(s) are used according to the focus of the study, for example, reports examining social, economic, political, travel, geographic issues or with a localised focus. In particular, the SG Urban Rural Classification has been used to examine social-economic characteristics and lifestyle, e.g. Scottish Household Survey Annual Report, Rural Scotland Key Facts. 7 It has also been used for rural planning and development purposes, e.g. Rural Scotland: Better Still, Naturally. 8 Some studies assessing deprivation and poverty in rural areas in Scotland have also used the SG Urban Rural Classification system, e.g. The Experience of Rural Poverty in Scotland: Qualitative Research with Organisations Working with People Experiencing Poverty in Rural Areas. 9

In summary,

  • A wide range of classifications exist, using location variables (geography) including travel time, settlement size and type, socio-economic criteria.
  • There are clear differences in approach across the UK with different systems in place for Scotland, England & Wales, and Northern Ireland).
  • In Scotland specifically, a number of reports identified by the desk research had used the SG Urban Rural Classification. Reports where this classification has been used as part of the analysis have focused on planning and development and various socio-economic issues such as deprivation and poverty, employment and standards of living.
  • The SG Urban Rural Classification cannot be applied in all instances and it is not designed to replace all other systems. Some systems are limited to a local basis and are not relevant for national studies e.g. HIE Fragility Index; or for their use covering the wide spectrum of urban to rural areas e.g. Small Towns Classification, Urban Settlement Definition.