Northern Ireland news

What makes a town a town? How Northern Ireland's towns, villages and 'intermediate settlements' are defined

The recent row over the status of Crossmaglen in south Armagh as a town or a village has focused a spotlight on how an area is defined. However, as Irish News reporter John Monaghan examines, there are plenty of grey areas and tight margins at play when the designation is being considered.

A map produced by NISRA in 2015 showing all towns in Northern Ireland, defined as areas with a population greater than 5,000
John Monaghan

WHAT makes a town a town?

The recent uproar over the changing of Crossmaglen's status shows being a town or a village matters - but defining an area is not always straightforward.

Previously the remit of government departments, powers to award town or village status were handed to councils under reforms of local government almost three years ago.

When taking forward "local development plans" to prepare for the future, councils are advised to consider a numerous elements apart from their own plans and analysis.

These include planning policy and a regional development strategy launched in 2012 by then DRD minister Danny Kennedy.

Although population size, services and infrastructure are taken into consideration, there are few hard and set rules. The status of an area has an impact because it can affect public funding and its ability to attract investment.

The most recent statistics designating towns, settlements and villages were published in 2015 by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra).

A council meeting about Crossmaglen's status heard that it considered four criteria as to whether it was a town - the latest Nisra statistics, the 2011 population census, infrastructure and housing.

Councillors argued that despite falling well under the population threshold for a town as defined by Nisra, Crossmaglen had many services and facilities, including a library and a bank, reflective of those of a town.

The Nisra report acknowledges the difficulties of defining areas.

"In the 2005 report, it was recommended that a prescriptive urban-rural definition should not be given," it noted.

"Rather, it was advised that users should consider defining urban and rural areas in ways which are appropriate for different projects and programmes.

"A default urban-rural classification, with the boundary at a settlement population of 5,000... to be used in the absence of a programme specific definition was provided."

Using 2011 Census information, Nisra separates places into seven different categories, with Belfast and Derry in the top two bands for population, at just more than 280,000 and 83,000 respectively.

The remaining five are divided into towns (large, medium or small), intermediate settlements and villages.

Outside of these categories, almost half a million people live in areas defined by Nisra as "less than 1,000 people and open countryside".

A large town has a population of 18,000 plus, a medium town between 10,000 and 18,000 and a small town 5,000 to 10,000 inhabitants.

Between 2,500 and 5,000 is classified as an intermediate settlement, while areas with populations ranging from 1,000 to 2,500 are villages.

According to the breakdowns, there are 14 large towns, 10 medium towns and 17 small towns. Some of the large towns are designated according to their 'metropolitan' areas.

Newtownabbey, Craigavon and Castlereagh metropolitan areas are each classified as large towns, while Lisburn City and metropolitan areas feature separately, with a combined population of more than 76,000.

Carryduff, which forms part of the south Belfast electoral constituency for the Assembly and Westminster elections, is a small town with a population of just under 7,000.

The figures for towns vary hugely by county, with Enniskillen the only designated town in Fermanagh with a population of just under 14,000 in 2011.

Down has the largest number of towns, at 15, with Antrim boasting 13, while Tyrone has five and Derry four.

Armagh has just two towns - Armagh itself and Craigavon - while Newry is split between Armagh and Down. While Nisra categorises both Armagh and Newry as towns - as well as Lisburn - all three have official city status.

There are 24 'intermediate settlements', which marks the default urban-rural split, while 69 areas are classified as villages.

Moira in Co Down and Maghera in Co Derry, with populations of over 4,000, are deemed to be intermediate settlements but were close to being included as towns in the 2015 report.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Cullybackey, Portaferry and Newbuildings, on the outskirts of Derry city, just meet the 2,500 threshold to qualify as intermediate settlements.

There were 17 additions to the villages category from the previous Nisra report in 2005, including Camlough, Cloughey, Mayobridge, Aghagallon, Aughnacloy, Maguiresbridge, Kesh, Ballyhalbert, Bleary and Dromara - all of which have fewer than 1,100 residents.

Some areas switched designation due to huge population increases since the 2001 Census.

Crumlin in Co Antrim, which experienced a 20 per cent growth in a decade, went from being a village to a small town, while a 15 per cent rise in the population of Ballymoney saw it become a medium town.

Glenavy, close to Crumlin, saw its population increase by 67 per cent, while villages such as Dundrum, Maghaberry, Waringstown and Ballywater rose by more than 40 per cent.

Dungannon, a medium town, did not change category but saw a 30 per growth in its population in the 10-year period.

The Regional Development Strategy 2035 was described by the former DRD as a "a framework which provides the strategic context for where development should happen".

The strategy report states: "Responsibility for the preparation of local development plans and development schemes will transfer to local councils; these must 'take account' of the RDS".

It also noted some trends in terms of jobs and population changes for councils to consider when moving forward.

"Recently the rural community living in small towns, villages, and small settlements in the countryside, has experienced the fastest rate of population growth. This reverses a long-term trend of population decline.

"Almost half of all Northern Ireland’s net new jobs (in the period to 2028) are expected to be created in the four city councils of Belfast, Londonderry, Lisburn and Newry."

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