Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies

Defining Localities & Regions

Defining Localities and Regions


Our research involves identifying 'where one place stops and the next starts'. This involves analysis of complex datasets.

Housing markets

This research forms part of our contribution to the Spatial Economics Research Centre. It builds on a project to define housing market areas for the National Housing & Planning Advisory Unit.

Travel-to-work areas

For almost 30 years, CURDS has defined travel-to-work areas for the government. We analyse each new Census commuting dataset. We then produce the only official statistical boundaries defined by academics. 

Each advance in this regionalisation method prompts academic debate. It has also been replicated in other countries across the world. 

Labour market definition

CURDS recently began research for Eurostat. We explore the possibility of a ‘European standard method’ for defining labour market areas.

Functional economic areas

Much of the latest urban and regional policy thinking calls for action at the ‘functional economic area’ (FEA) scale. Yet there is no established way to identify these economic ‘places’ in practice. 

FEAs aren’t one-dimensional. They’re not reducible to labour market areas, for example. The key challenge is drawing on more than one type of information when defining them. 

CURDS edited the government’s guide to FEA definition. We completed FEA mapping for several local and regional authorities. 

Our team continue to work at this research frontier.

CURDS defines travel-to-work area for the government based on such things as public transport, including Tyne and Wear Metro.
CURDS defines travel-to-work areas based on variables including public transport, such as Tyne and Wear Metro.

Housing in England

CURDS was instrumental in the Geography of Housing Market Areas in England research project.

The National Housing and Planning Advisory Unit (NHPAU) funded our research. A multi-university research team led by Prof Colin Jones (Heriot-Watt University) took part. 

Prof Mike Coombes led the CURDS research. Prof Cecilia Wong (Manchester University) led the other major component of the project.

Some of the project outputs linked to below include maps using Ordnance Survey material. NHPAU held this material as part of the pan-government agreement. 

Ordnance Survey gives permission to reproduce on behalf of Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO). © Crown copyright and database right 2009. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100018986.

Defined housing market area boundaries

The research produced the first theory-based, rigorously-defined housing market area (HMA) boundaries for England

It was particularly innovative in drawing on three different strands of evidence: 

  • commuting
  • migration
  • housing price patterns 

It has also explored potential advantages and feasibility of defining many ‘tiers’ of HMAs. Summarised findings of the research (824KB) are available to view.

Three stages

The project involved three stages and each produced at least one detailed report.

Stage one (PDF: 1.98MB), led by Heriot-Watt and Manchester, reviewed principles behind definitions of HMAs. It examined how these principles were implemented in each region of the country. It included a detailed examination of different approaches applied to the North West.

Stage two (PDF: 1.75MB), led by CURDS, involved new methodological developments to define HMAs.

Stage three included a Manchester-led review (displayed on this page) of spatial planning issues and implications. It also included analyses (PDF: 159KB) of affordability by Heriot-Watt.

The outcome was HMA definitions with a tiered structure where appropriate (Excel: 644KB) (eg London). This was to provide HMA boundaries that would be useful for the planning of housing, with:

  • a set of strategic HMAs covering England, providing appropriate areas for modelling and analysis of affordability
  • strategic HMAs split into a ‘lower tier’ of local HMAs in urbanised regions for detailed monitoring of housing supply and demand

The research has also provided, as an alternative, a single tier set of HMAs (Excel: 1.0MB).

'Gold standard'

These HMAs are ‘gold standard’ as boundaries are defined to the maximum level of detail. 

They group the circa 9,000 wards used for migration and commuting datasets available from the 2001 Census. Thanks are due to the Office for National Statistics.

They allowed temporary access to unpublished data on migration by Moving Group Reference Persons aged 25 or more. © Census output is Crown copyright and reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's Printer for Scotland.

To produce ‘gold standard’ boundaries there were slight changes to groupings of wards from computerised analyses of Census datasets. 

These minor adjustments prevented any boundary non-contiguity (in which the HMA would include a ward separated from the rest of the HMA by intervening areas belonging to one or more different HMAs). 

'Silver standard'

Along with the 'gold standard’ HMA definitions there are ‘silver standard’ versions. These represent the best match to the original definition obtainable by grouping whole local authorities (LAs). 

These definitions use LA areas as at 2003 to maximise the data available for them. There is a ‘silver standard’ version of Strategic HMAs (Excel: 278KB) plus a ‘silver standard’ single tier set of HMAs (Excel: 219KB).

Results outside of England

The research produced appropriate HMA boundaries for England. It has two implications for the results in Wales and Scotland. HMAs can straddle national borders. With Berwick for example, patterns of movement characterising HMAs span the border.

There has been no commitment to producing HMA boundaries appropriate for Wales or Scotland. For example, ‘silver standard’ definitions of Strategic HMAs were only produced for England.

CURDS has completed detailed research of housing market areas within England.
CURDS has defined housing markets within England for the National Housing and Planning Advisory Unit.
Recommended HMA Boundaries: implications for spatial planning

Culture & Identities

The distinctiveness of regions derives from their different local and regional identities and culture.

Policy debates have recently put forward the value of culture-led regeneration. There is an assertion that it can help solve urban development challenges.

Our work in this field has examined the content of local and regional identities. It has also looked at the factors that produce them.


Sponsors of this work have included the: 

  • Economic and Social Research Council
  • Leverhulme Trust
  • English Heritage
The iconic Sage boosts the economy of Newcastle Upon Tyne and also adds to its cultural identity.Photo by Garrod Kirkwood
The iconic Sage boosts the economy of Newcastle Upon Tyne and also adds to its cultural identity.

Local Economies

CURDS has a long-standing interest in the historical evolution of the economic landscape.

Recently, this research has focused upon questions of resilience. It looks at the geographical uneven ways localities and regions cope with economic change

These include: 

  • financial crises
  • recessions
  • shocks
  • technological shifts

Some places show the capacity to adapt and bounce back. Some even remain unaffected by such challenges. But others end up weaker and more vulnerable.

Research focus

Research in this area focuses upon: 

  • developing conceptual and theoretical understanding of path creation
  • adaptive capacity
  • governance as the basis for policy to enable local and regional economies to resist, respond and adapt to the challenges of disruptive economic change


Sponsors of this work include Economic and Social Research Council and Government Office for Science.

Industrial heartlands have adapted from industries that have died out to adopt new technologies leading to regeneration of cities.
Some industrial heartlands have adapted from industries that have died out to adopt new technologies leading to regeneration of cities.

'Place' Economics

This research theme contributes to the evolving debate about regional policy.

Over a long period, our work has emphasised the importance of local and regional development that originates through embedded assets such as technologies and skills.

Recently this work has connected at the European level with debates about 'smart specialisation'.


Sponsors of this work have included:

  • the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
  • European Commission
  • national, regional and local governments
The City of Arts and Science is a cultural quarter in Valencia, Spain, that has become a popular destination based on 'smart specialism'.
The City of Arts and Science is a cultural quarter in Valencia, Spain, that has become a popular destination based on ’smart specialism’.