Paul Wheeler: The pandemic could have big effects on the Census, and that could be bad news for London

Paul Wheeler: The pandemic could have big effects on the Census, and that could be bad news for London

Conducting an accurate Census in London is always a challenge. Highly mobile populations, language and cultural barriers and concentrations of buildings that are difficult to access are ever-present issues. The Census is a national government survey conducted every ten years by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It gathers information about people and households to inform how public services are designed and funded. This year’s – scheduled for Sunday 21 March – will be conducted during a world-wide pandemic that has created huge population shifts. These are not necessarily favourable to the capital.

Much has already been made of a recent survey by the government-funded Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence, which estimated that up to 1.3 million people born overseas have left the UK (half of them were from London). These figures have been questioned both in terms of scale and permanency, but there is no doubt that with its strong concentration of jobs in the damaged tourism, entertainment and hospitality industries and its high housing costs London has suffered from adverse economic migration for the first time in decades. Less discussed so far, however, is the short-term migration from the capital of three significant groups and its potential impact on the census findings.

At 300,000, London has the highest number of students of any city in Europe. Many of those from overseas have simply not been able to attend universities in the capital from January 2020, and most UK students have been advised or instructed to stay away. There are exceptions, such as for those on medical courses and other more practical subjects, but the vast majority of students will not be in a London residence on 21 March 21, which, as with previous Census dates, was originally chosen in part because it falls within university term time.

University residency in the capital is not uniformly spread, but has a concentration in Inner North London. Perhaps the most extreme example is Camden, where an estimated 26,000 students account for over 10% of its population. There are some swings to this roundabout, as clearly some students will be home-based in London rather than other parts of the UK. However, this presents further complications as those boroughs with the highest number of university students tend to be the more affluent boroughs such as Richmond and Kingston. This will give them a population boost compared with boroughs that host universities and their halls of residence. Camden and Islington could see significant declines.

Then there are what can be termed the Millennial Working from Homers. Aged 25-40, many of them, freed from the shackles of office routine, are have been able to give up high rent apartments in London (“Why stay in Hackney when everything is closed down?”) to work from their parents’ homes in the shires or even more exotic locations. Perhaps the most ambitious example is Jack Stenner, Sadiq Khan’s political aide, who relocated 5,000 miles to San Francisco (he has since returned).

Evidence of the scale of this particular population shift is perhaps apocryphal, but hard evidence is emerging in the form of a downward drift in rents in Inner London. According to Rightmove, average asking rents in London are down 12.4% on the year before and 53% of renters in Inner London are considering a move out of the capital. 

Finally, we can’t forget the rich. In our sister city of New York it was they who fled first, and the evidence emerging from their Census, which started last year, is not encouraging for Census-takers in London. It was the districts of wealthy Manhattan along Fifth Avenue that had the lowest response rates in the whole of the city and far lower than the previous census in 2010. While it is estimated that overall upwards of 400,000 or 5% of residents left the city during the height of the pandemic (which coincided with the census survey), in more affluent areas such as the Upper East Side and Brooklyn Heights the exodus was more like 40%.

It is unlikely that London will see similar levels, but there is no doubt that many Londoners who have a second home and the ability to work from it have chosen to sit the pandemic out on the beaches of Cornwall or, in the case of Andrew Neil, from his villa in the South of France. Accurate figures are hard to come by for London (in New York they analysed smartphone activity to track location). However, it is noticeable that the NHS clinical commissioning group with the lowest level of vaccinations for the over 70s is not in the hard-pressed East End but in Westminster, which includes areas such as Belgravia and Knightsbridge – some of the wealthiest communities in Britain.

Does all this really matter?. After all, with a road map published and vaccination levels soaring, we will be back to normal by the autumn and London will see a new Roaring Twenties. Well, even it that proves to be true, the pandemic’s implications for the Census will still apply. As well as measuring the population, it provides a framework for the government and other public agencies to plan and fund public services.

Moreover, the Census works on what could be termed the Emily Wilding-Davies principle. Emily was a famous suffragette who hid in a broom cupboard in the House of Commons on census night 1911 so she could be recorded as being resident in Parliament. It’s where you are on Census Day that counts. 

It is entirely possible that upwards of 10% of London’s population who would be normally be resident on 21 March won’t be counted for Covid-related reasons. It means London and its boroughs could lose millions of pounds over the next ten years because the census snapshot taken at just the wrong time. Interestingly, the Scottish government has decided to postpone its census until 2022 because of the problems caused by the pandemic.

Professor Tony Travers, Director of LSE London, urges some caution. The rich are unlikely to have fled the city to the same extent as New York has seen, and the fall in student numbers at London institutions will be offset to some extent by the number of home based students remaining in London, he says. There may be opportunities to amend provisional census findings through annually adjusted ONS sources. There may even be a perverse benefit to London to the extent that several funding indices are based on deprivation, and if it is the rich and well-paid who are not counted this time around a greater share of deprivation funding might be attracted as a result.

But since the end of the 1980s, both nationally and internationally, London has thrived on growth and dynamism. Now is not the time to be going backwards.

Paul Wheeler writes about local politics. Follow him on Twitter.

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Categories: Analysis

1 Comment

  1. Kyle Harrison says:

    Or the census might measure London now and London might have more money than it needs because the population continues to fall throughout the 2020s as immigration does not return in previous numbers due to travel restrictions, Brexit and a general change in global economic sentiment. Plus, working from home becomes normal and commuter numbers only recover slightly but still way down, as a result fewer migrants come to London for work plus fewer graduates move to London combined with older Londoners taking the chance to move out.

    It’s perfectly possible this will happen. It happened in the 50s, 60s, 70s and most of the 1980s. So why not again? London might only be capable of growing so big before it reverses. Could this city really make 10 or 11 million people work? Pollution, house prices etc… Do people want to live in such a polluted, expensive city?

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