Census figures for London should be treated with ‘extreme caution’ says cross-party body

Census figures for London should be treated with ‘extreme caution’ says cross-party body

Newly-released figures from the 2021 Census are likely to have significantly undercounted the capital’s population and should be treated with “extreme caution” as a basis for the allocation of government funding, according to London Councils, the cross-party body that represents the capital’s 33 local authorities.

The headline Census finding is that London’s population was 8.8 million as of 21 March 2021 – Census Day – but London Councils point out that this figure is almost 300,000 lower than the most recent Office for National Statistics projection for 2021 (produced in 2018) and just over 200,000 lower than the mid-year estimate for 2020.

The suspected undercount is attributed to the Census being conducted during the third national lockdown to control the Covid-19 pandemic, a period when boroughs believe many of their residents, especially students, young people on furlough and migrant workers from abroad, may have temporarily moved outside the capital.

The problem is primarily apparent in inner London boroughs according to this assessment, with the figures for Westminster and Camden almost 25 per cent lower than the 2018 projections for 2021.

London Councils says that around £4 billion of government funding to London local authorities “relies directly or indirectly on Census population figures” and that there will also be “implications for billions of pounds of funding for the GLA [Greater London Authority], the NHs, police, fire and other much-needed frontline services”.

The Greater London Authority itself had stated in advance of their release that “the Census findings will not be an accurate reflection of London’s population in 2022, as the Census preceded the return of many young people to London that took place over the following months as the economy reopened [after the pandemic lockdowns].”

The GLA also warned that the 2021 Census “will reveal issues in current estimates for London, including inflated numbers of children and older adults” and that “naive comparisons of the results of the Census with recent population estimates are likely to conflate the impacts of the pandemic and errors in the estimates data”.

During the pandemic there were differing conclusions among academics about how many people had left the capital under lockdown, with one estimate suggesting that the figure could be as high as 700,000 while others concluded that the figure was likely to be far smaller due to a different method of collecting some data being used because of Covid.

The GLA explains that areas of the country, particularly within London, that experience high levels migration have the potential for “very large errors in estimates to accumulate over the course of the decade”, adding to the difficulty of quantifying the population.

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