Making sense of the UK Census

By Paddy Kent,
Account Director

The first Census 2021 results are out and of course the data and what it can tell you are extremely useful to those in the property and planning sector.

The country has grown by 6.3% in the last 10 years.
The population of England and Wales has risen to 59.6 million, a rise of 6.3% from 2011’s figure of 56.1m. This percentage increase is slightly down from 2011’s 7.8% increase, although that was high compared to the post-war average 10 yearly population increase of 4.9%.

This 3.5m increase is made up of ‘natural increase’ (births minus deaths) of 1.5m and net migration accounts for the other 2.0m of the increase.

Whilst across England and Wales the population increased by 6.3%, there were large differences between the 331 local authorities. In 25 local authorities the population declined, with Kensington and Chelsea topping the poll with a decrease of 9.6%, closely followed by Westminster with a decrease of 6.9%. Camden was the only other London authority falling onto the list of councils with population decline, which was over-represented by authorities in rural west Wales and north-west England.  There has been speculation that the 2021 census was unreliable because Covid had distorted people’s ‘normal’ living arrangements and this will no doubt be poured over further.

However, in 59 authorities, the population grew by over 10%, well above the national average of 6.3%. With the exceptions of Selby and Salford, every single one of these is south of Nottingham, with a noticeable clustering in central Southern England as well as isolated high growth areas in Norfolk (South Norfolk) and Devon (East Devon). Topping the list was the Tower Hamlets (22.1% increase), well known for its high housing targets and its use of tall buildings to achieve them. But next on the list was Dartford (20%), followed by Barking & Dagenham (17.7%), Bedford (17.7%) and Cambridge (17.6%), all far less associated with tall buildings.

The regional breakdowns show the region with the highest growth was the East of England (8.3%), only very narrowly ahead of the South-West (7.8%), London (7.7%), East Midlands (7.7%) and the South-East (7.5%). Wales had the lowest-growth at 1.4%, followed by the North-East with 1.9%. A simple observation here is that at a regional level, growth in the English regions has been far more uniform than at local authority level, which is of course to be expected.

Changes in the age of our population is also interesting for property.
In 2011, there were 903,000 men in England over 80. The 2021 Census recorded 1.14m – that’s a whopping 24% increase. The percentage increase for women is much lower, at 8%. No doubt the retirement sector will be considering whether it can and should respond to these changes.

Census data also includes households data.
In England and Wales, the number of households has increased by 6.1% to 23.4m. This is very similar to the percentage increase in population, but it’s slightly less, so this tells us that the average household has increased in size, albeit only very marginally, from 2.36 people per household to 2.40. There could be a large number of reasons why households are becoming larger, but rising housing costs are of course one possible explanation – we are all familiar with young couples living with parents because housing is so expensive that they are unable or unwilling to move out. In housing economics, these young couples are ‘concealed households’.

A forensic analysis could plot all 331 local authorities’ change in average household size over the last 10 years against the change in house prices in that same authority to see if there is correlation. One problem is that there are many reasons why concealed households may exist and the cost of housing may be just one of those.

Projections about future numbers of households are at the heart of the NPPF’s Standard Method formula for housing need, which currently utilises 2014 projections. The publication of the 2021 Census will be used to help develop future household projections, which could shape future housing targets. However, as always with planning, there is of course no certainty about this.

The current Standard Method still uses the 2014 projections despite the existence of more recent (2016) future projections. As it happens, the more recent projections were around 24% lower due to a variety of reasons including predictions of lower natural population increase and lower migration. The Government didn’t abandon the higher 2014 projections, in its view this gave LPAs ‘certainty’ but perhaps also it chose not to lower targets because most LPAs were not delivering anything close to their housing need anyway.

In due course, the 2021 Census data will be used to produce future household projections and you would expect would heavily influence future housing targets, but as always with the planning system, it’s hard to know.