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Lost in Space? Travel-to-Work Areas, City-Regions, and Strategic Development Planning Authorities

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How we live, work and travel does not often neatly fit within official administrative boundaries, such as those of Local Authorities or councils. As a result, administrative boundaries are becoming increasingly inappropriate or irrelevant for the purposes of understanding, planning, and managing the location of households, workplaces and other activities (e.g. shopping). For example, improved transport networks have led to greater cross-boundary interactions and greater integration of labour and housing markets: this in turn requires stronger coordination in spatial planning and governance among the different local authorities. 

There have been various efforts to move away from administrative boundaries, largely by defining new geographies to represent ‘functional economic regions’. For example, the past years have seen official recognition of “Travel-to-Work Areas”, “City-Regions”, and most recently “Strategic Development Planning Authorities”. These are all important changes towards increased coordination in spatial planning and governance, but they have not yet been widely institutionalised for economic analysis and policy making.

Below I have provided three maps of Scotland, that illustrate these differences. The first map represents ‘Travel-to-Work Areas’ (TTWAs). The second map shows Local Authorities (LAs) and highlights Scotland’s seven city-TTWAs (also called city-regions). The last map shows the boundaries of ‘Strategic Development Planning Authorities’ (SDPAs). You might not find it easy to immediately spot the differences.

TTWAs are based on commuting flows and consist of regions where the large majority of the resident population also work. The boundaries of TTWAs generally cut across various local authorities, reflecting the fact that people often live and work in different local authorities. The mismatch between TTWAs and LAs is visible on the second map. For example, consider the four largest city-TTWAs:

  • Aberdeen-TTWA contains Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire LAs;
  • Dundee-TTWA contains Angus, Dundee City, Fife and Perth & Kinross LAs;
  • Edinburgh-TTWA contains Edinburgh City, East Lothian, Midlothian, Scottish Borders and South Lanarkshire;
  • Glasgow-TTWA contains Glasgow City, East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire, Stirling, and West Dunbartonshire.

Management and planning of city-region issues - such as housing and transport - therefore require coordinated cross-boundary decision making. Strategic Development Planning Authorities (as shown in the last map) were created to fulfil this need and are responsible for producing long term Strategic Development Plans for the four largest city regions (sometimes also called Metropolitan Areas).

In 2013, much of the economic activity of Scotland occurred within the seven city-regions shown in colours on the first two maps. They accounted for 53%, 61% and 69% of Scotland’s population, employment and ‘Gross Value Added’ (GVA) respectively, while representing only 22% of total land area. The technical jargon used by economists to explain this contrasting pattern of location of people and jobs is “urban agglomeration economies”. The main idea is that the spatial clustering of economic activities generates productivity benefits that are external to individual firms and workers. This in turn generates greater attraction of new activities and further reinforces spatial concentration patterns, up to a point where agglomeration diseconomies such as congestion and pollution start outweighing the benefits from agglomeration.

Travel-to-Work Areas (TTWAs) Those coloured are those associated with Scotland’s 7 cities. Source: Patricia Melo.

Local Authorities and the 7 city-TTWAs (Travel-To-Work-Areas). Source: <> Four Strategic Development Planning Authorities in Scotland. Source: <>

There is currently great emphasis on city-regions; this is manifested in the current Scottish Government Economic Strategy which portrays cities as growth engines that spread positive spillover effects into their surrounding areas. Indeed, the maps above illustrate the strong contribution of cities and their regions to Scotland’s economy.  However, they also raise issues relating to “spatial justice” - how might a “City-Regions” economic and political agenda deliver inclusive growth across the whole of Scotland?

Research carried out by my colleagues within SEGS shows that there is remarkable variation in socio-economic performance both between and within urban and rural parts of Scotland - see, for example, our work on regional disparities in employment growth and earnings, and our Rural Socio-Economic Performance (SEP) Index. Overall, the findings from our research suggest that accessible rural areas (those within 30 minutes from urban areas) tend to have the best performance, while remote small towns and remote rural areas tend to be the worst performers. Given that these remote parts of Scotland are not on the radar of any of the major city-regions discussed above, we are currently examining how a “City-Regions” agenda might impact on them.  Could a focus on city-regions ever work to the advantage of remote regions?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



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Printed from /blog/segs/lost-in-space on 28/02/24 03:41:04 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.