Readers of the Guardian could be forgiven for believing that London is emptying out, its population plunging due to an unprecedented “exodus” brought about by its high housing costs. This fits with a wider, populist Grand Narrative which the same news organisation perpetuates on pretty much a daily basis. No doubt this keeps its readers helpfully appalled. Reality, though, is rather different.
“For the first time in half a decade more people are leaving London than are moving to it,” claimed a recent opinion piece. This is incorrect. The most recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures for migration to and from the capital, covering the year to June 2016, show a net inflow of 32,800. And there has been a net inflow every year this century except for 2003 and 2004 (the London Datastore has the figures up to 2015).
The error seems to have stemmed from an earlier news article which said: “In the year to June 2016, net outward migration from London reached 93,300 people.” This too is incorrect. The figure of minus 93,300 is not for migration overall during the period concerned, but net outward internal migration, which is not the same thing.
The internal (or domestic) migration figure is the difference between the number of people who move in to London from elsewhere in the UK and the number who move out of London to elsewhere in the UK. There is a separate set of figures for international migration to and from the capital. These show the number of people who move to London from outside the UK and the number who do the reverse.
In the year to June 2016, net international migration to London was 126,100, according to the ONS estimate. Therefore the true net migration figure for London in the year to the end of June 2016 was, as stated above, 32,800 – the difference between the net international migration figure of plus 126,100 and the net internal (or domestic) migration figure of minus 93,300. In other words, there was an overall net population inflow and not an “exodus” at all.
Even so, Guardian readers might be alarmed by the correct fact that 93,300 people left London for elsewhere in the UK, given that this was described to them as “more than 80% higher than five years earlier”. In fact, that is an understatement: net internal migration in 2011 was minus 40,344, so the 2016 figure is well over 100% higher than five years earlier. But is it evidence of a gathering, harmful trend? That depends on how far back you look and how you interpret the numbers.
For one thing, there has been negative internal (or domestic) migration from London without interruption for decades. It is a completely normal feature of the city, as Londoners seek cheaper or larger housing or a different style of life. For another, even recent history shows that 93,300 Londoners a year heading for elsewhere in the UK – overwhelmingly for elsewhere in the south of England – is not out of the ordinary. From 2001 until 2005 it ranged from 84,500 to over 103,000. Even the lowest internal outflow this century was just a little below a pretty substantial 32,000. That was in 2009. And therein lies a clue.
City Hall statisticians have provided some commentary on the latest figures (see page seven). They note that the drop to a net minus 32,000 happened “in the aftermath of the [financial] crisis” of 2008. A big part of the explanation for this is almost certainly that it was suddenly much harder to get mortgages and, therefore, to move out of London into home ownership or further up “the ladder”.
What about the 2016 surge to a net minus 93,300? Here, the City Hall statisticians look deeper into the internal migration picture. They write:
Net domestic migration is chiefly driven by the large domestic outflows from London to other parts of the UK. These outflows have been slowly recovering since a drop below 600,000 after the financial crisis. This latest data (a rise in outflows from 665,200 to 672,900) indicates a further step back towards the patterns of migration seen before the crisis.
Note again that the net internal outflow is the difference between the number coming in to London from elsewhere in the UK and the number doing the opposite – that’s where the 93,300 comes from. The figures quoted directly above – the 600,000 and more – are for those moving out of London to elsewhere in the UK each year only and imply that upwards of half a million routinely arrive annually in London from other parts of the country. This demonstrates just how much population change and churn takes place in the capital all the time. And in the context of the wider “exodus” narrative, its part in the net increased internal outflow is interpreted by the City Hall experts as a return to pre-crash normality rather than something new and sinister.
No one half sensible disputes that London’s very high housing costs contribute to population movements towards the edges of the metropolis and beyond – they have for a very long time, and for private renters and would-be first time buyers in particular those costs have lately become particularly acute in recent years, as London property prices spiralled spectacularly.
But it isn’t all about people being “pushed out” by “the rich”, as the Grand Narrative so often has it. The Guardian news piece itself showed this, in the form of a quote from an analyst from Savills: “Five years ago people would have been reluctant [to move out] because the economy wasn’t as strong and some owners didn’t want to miss out on house price growth”. In other words, the “exodus” is also due to people choosing their moment to cash in on the state of the housing market as well as people being priced out.
Meanwhile, inward migration of all kinds continues to outstrip outflows, demonstrating London’s continuing attraction to people from other parts of this country and from other countries alike. It has contributed to the capital’s population soaring to record levels, though this has been mostly a result of a long term increase in “natural change” in London’s population – the difference between birth rates and death rates – which has been producing around 80,000 additional Londoners a year since 2008.
Three closing thoughts on this: one, the London housing Grand Narrative is a populist distraction from a much more complex reality; two, recent trends in London housing are variations on very long term themes as well as symptoms of modern times; three, the Guardian, for which I was proud to write about the capital until early this year, should exercise more quality control.