Will absent Londoners come back to the Covid capital? And when?

Will absent Londoners come back to the Covid capital? And when?

There’s been a lot of interest in how London’s population size has been affected by the pandemic and how long those affects might last. An assessment produced last autumn concluded that the number of Londoners will keep on increasing over the next 30 years, with Covid impacts proving temporary.

But a subsequent one – which has received lots of media coverage – estimated that, as things stand, there might currently be a strikingly high 700,000 fewer people living in London than there were at this time last year, when the first lockdown was put in place. Has that really happened? If so, will those Londoners return?

The authors of the more recent study, Michael O’Connor and Jonathan Portes, wrote:

“Much of this may be temporary, if non-UK born people return to London after the pandemic; but it may not. Big shifts in population trends in London, driven by economic changes and events, are by no means historically unprecedented – Inner London’s population shrank by fully 20% in the 1970s, so the recent picture of sustained growth driven by international migration is relatively recent. If this has now reversed, the medium to long-term implications for London will be profound.”

Taking a cue from the above, we might be wise to conclude that we will have to wait and see. But there is, perhaps, a clue to at least part of what might happen in last week’s fascinating London polling by Redfield & Wilton Strategies.

Along with findings about mayoral election voting intentions and possible insights into why one candidate is so far ahead, the pollsters learned which of their representative sample of Londoners were out of town when responding to the poll. A noteworthy 15 percent – nearly 250 people – said they were. Redfield & Wilton asked those people when they expected to return to London. Here’s a summary of the replies:

  • 17 per cent said they intend to return some time this month.
  • 27 per cent said some time in April.
  • 26 per cent said some time in May,
  • 17 per cent said some time in June.
  • 10 per cent said some time after June.
  • Only four per cent said “potentially, never”.

As with the very different sorts of study mentioned above, we ought to exercise caution about drawing big, fixed conclusions from this polling, which was of a fairly small sub-sample. Even so, it may serve as a warning that, as in other scenarios so often before, reports of a mass exodus from London may turn out to be exaggerated. We shall see.

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Categories: Analysis


  1. Philip Virgo says:

    Another way of looking at the poll result is that 2% of those “contacted as “Londoners” do not expect to return until after June, if at all. More-over London would have been shrinking over recent decades but for a constant flow of immigrants from outside the UK. Assumptions of a return to population growth assume a return to London’s pre-Brexit position as a magnet for immigrants (and their dependants) from around the world, including the EU. But a growing number of major employers are assuming falls of 10 – 20% in their requirements for office space in London and the fall in the number of retail outlets has been sharper in London than across the rest of the UK. What are the policies that will aid the recovery that will employ the existing population, let alone attract immigration? It will not happen without action by the new Mayor of London to help local residents compete globally to create wealth, or to attract immigrants who will do so. Meanwhile 300,000 Hong Kong Chinese are likely to give a free enterprise boost to Manchester, which already has the largest Chinese community east of San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver.

  2. Cait says:

    Interesting comments from Philip. I can’t help but think that the combined effects of a Brexit downturn, due in part to not just people returning to eg: Poland, but as importantly, not actually coming here in the first place, as well as Covid based changing working patterns… The next decade may be a rocky one.

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