Is London’s population really likely to fall this year?

Is London’s population really likely to fall this year?

As On London recently reported, Greater London Authority statisticians have estimated that the capital’s population will continue to grow strongly over the next 30 years –  from its current nine million to up to and perhaps above 11 million – despite the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Their analysis includes the expectation that there will be no short-term interruption of the upward trend that began at the end of the 1980s, with the number of Londoners increasing by around 50,000 a year until the middle of 2022. It was then, a surprise to see a Guardian headline last week proclaim: “London population set to decline for first time since 1988“.

To be more precise, the surprise lay in the headline’s claim, given what the GLA had already produced, rather than the fact that the Guardian was running such a story – that outlet is a frequent purveyor of London “exodus” narratives, most of them rather thin. However, in this case it was covering a report by big-time accountancy firm PwC, so it deserved a closer look.

The Guardian piece was derived from a 24-page PwC economic output report for the whole of the UK. It includes a list of eight predictions, and these include the expectation that London’s population will fall in 2021 because a Covid-driven “shift away from city living is likely to both increase the number of people moving out of the capital and decrease the number of people moving in.”

Elaborating, the PwC report says “we may see a decline in the number of graduates that arrive in the capital in 2021” because attractive jobs here might become more scarce and because remote working will become more established. Regarding migration out of the capital PwC thinks effects beyond Covid might include UK-wide concerns about economic and political standing, post-Brexit.

It also sets store by an online survey conducted by the London Assembly’s housing committee, published last August, saying this found that “4.5% of Londoners – or 416,000 people – responded that they would definitely move out of the city within the next 12 months”.

A comparison is drawn between the Assembly survey finding and a pre-Covid projection by the Office for National Statistics that London’s population would grow by 56,000 between 2020 and 2021. “It would require just 14% of these respondents [to the Assembly survey] to actually move in 2021 to break even with this projection,” the PwC report says.

This is an interesting, though a good look at the Assembly survey does raise some questions about how solid a measure of London public opinion it is. Only 450 people took part in it – less than half the minimum number required by professional polling companies to secure statistically robust results – and they were self-selecting. A summary of the responses says “weighting was calculated using the 2011 census to provide proportionate sub-groups”, but no more detail is provided.

The survey figures show that 33% of the 450 people who chose to take part in the Assembly survey (149 of them) said they would like to move to a new home, of whom 46% (68 people) said they would like to move out of London, of whom 30% (20 people) said they would “definitely” be moving out of London in the next 12 months. PwC seem to have extrapolated their 4.5% of Londoners (or 416,000 people) figure from this (note that your correspondent failed A-level maths).

Another thing to note is that, in relation to the whole UK, PwC predicts that “there would be fewer babies born in 2021 than in any year since records began” because the health, social and economic impacts of the pandemic could result in a “baby bust”.

This is different from the GLA’s assumption about London, which is that the capital’s population “natural change” trend of births outnumbering deaths will carry on – sadly, with Covid deaths entering the equation – and outweigh an initial large drop in inward migration from overseas.

As for domestic or internal migration, it has long been the case that more people move out of London to elsewhere in the UK than the reverse, and scale of the difference is, the GLA point out, affected by a lot of different, non-Covid variables.

Which analysis will turn out to be right? Answers this time next year, maybe.

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Categories: Analysis

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