The census is a massive exercise. So we only do it every ten years. Although there are now many ways of finding out about the population, only the census collects detailed information about every individual in the country. Computers have speeded up the processes, but gathering, checking and organising the data still takes time. So, the data from the 2021 census is appearing in instalments.
This latest batch tells us about the size and age of the population: how many of us are there, where have we come from, and what kind of households we live in. This has implications for many areas of public policy.
The East of England is the fastest growing region of England, and the oldest, but it is increasingly divided. Like the rest of England, in the East, cities and urban areas (especially those with Universities), and areas close to London, are growing and becoming younger and more diverse. Meanwhile, the rural areas and coastal fringes are ageing, and changing much more slowly.
The population is growing
England now has the largest population in history. Over the last decade, it has risen by 7%, to 56.5 million. This is the result of two factors. “Natural growth” has seen 1.5 million more babies born than people dying, while immigration has added 2 million from other countries.
All regions have seen population growth, but the highest growth (at 8.3%) was in the Eastern region. Here, the rise of 488,000 takes us over 6 million people for the first time.
The biggest growth was in Cambridge, Bedford and Peterborough, all of which expanded by over 17%. This is ten times the rate in the coastal fringes of North Norfolk, Castle Point in Essex, and Great Yarmouth.
Since 2011, the number of households in England has risen by 6.1% to nearly 25 million. Again, the East saw the largest rise (8.5%). At 18%, Uttlesford District in Essex saw the second largest rise in England. The demand for new housing is large, but not everyone welcomes more houses in their area.
Although marriage as an institution may be in decline, most households (55%) are still stable couples. Sixteen percent are single people, and 10% are lone parents.
Immigration into England
Since the level of immigration is a sensitive political issue, the new data on country of birth was bound to get a lot of media attention.
More than half (57%) of the increase in the total English population is from people born outside England. They now represent one in five people in England. However, the overall picture is heavily distorted by London, where the figure is 41%; elsewhere the numbers are generally much lower.
More than half the people born outside the UK have been here a long time. Of the 10 million total, 5.6 million arrived before 2010, compared to 4.2 million in the last decade. Almost half a million of these moved to England in the year before the census. One in three arrived as children.
Among the many social and economic changes since the last census in 2011, one might expect Brexit to have caused a drop on EU born numbers. However, the proportion of UK residents holding an EU passport has actually risen, from 2.3 million to 3.9 million. They now account for two thirds of those holding non-British passports.
Immigration into the East
In the East, at 11%, the proportion born outside England is much lower than the national average. Half of these were born in EU countries, and a quarter in Asia (mainly India). However, they tend to be concentrated, partly because of the presence of overseas students. More than 30% of the population of Cambridge, Luton and Watford were born outside England, and the numbers have grown especially rapidly (by 9%) in Cambridge and Watford.
Once again, the urban/coastal divide is evident. In North Norfolk, Maldon, Castle Point, and Rochford, more than 95% of residents were born in the UK.
The group which has grown fastest in the East is Romanians, following the lifting of restrictions in 2013 after Romania’s entry to the EU. The three largest groups are now Poles, Romanians and Indians. But each of these still only accounts for around 1% of the region’s population.
Age in the East of England
Like all developed countries, the UK’s population has been ageing for decades, as people live longer, and fertility rates fall. Since 2011, the median age in England has risen by a year, to reach 40.
But the Eastern region is much older than the rest of England. Here, the largest age group is aged 50-54, while in England it is 30-34. Ten percent of households in the East are older couples, and 13% are older single people.
Again, we see the geographical divide. Ageing is fastest in the outer edges of the region. North Norfolk is the oldest Local Authority area in the UK, with a median age of 54, followed by Tendring in Essex and East Suffolk. Nine Authorities in the region have median ages above 45, and five Authorities now have more than 30% of their residents aged over 65.
The young areas are urban areas, notably (but not exclusively) those with Universities. Cambridge, Norwich and Luton all have median ages below 35. And Peterborough has seen the second largest rise in England in the proportion of people under 15, who now represent almost a quarter of that district’s population.
The most striking finding from this data is the growing divide between urban areas and rural and coastal ones. Much has been made of the need for “levelling up” between the North and South of England. But similar divides are evident even in our relatively prosperous, southern part of the country. As more census data appears in future months, it will be interesting to see how far this divide is reflected in broader economic and social patterns, and how far public policy responds.
There is no reason to suppose that either the growth of population or its rising age are going to change in the near future. So, despite local protests, we are going to need more houses. The continuing ageing of the population has important implications for the nature of that housing, as well as for health, social care and other services. It is not clear that current housing policy is taking these issues into account.
Immigration has continued to rise since the referendum, especially from outside Europe. However, despite Brexit, over the decade, the proportion of people born in the EU has risen by over 30%. Immigration may not be universally welcomed, but it seems likely that, by one means or another, it will continue to happen, and to drive population growth.
All the data in this article can be found on the ONS Census website where there are interactive tools to examine the data at the level of individual Authorities. Interactive tools can also be found on the ITV Anglia website.