It is a hundred and twenty years since the first national census in the UK. Every ten years the whole population is counted, to give us an accurate picture, in considerable detail, of who we are. The results are critical to a host of government programmes and funding systems, and are widely used by businesses, researchers and the general public.
In the past, checking and analysing the data on 50 million paper forms took years, but technology has speeded the process, and the Office of National Statistics has just released the first findings from the 2021 census of England and Wales. However, at this stage we only have details of numbers of people, their sex and age.
The national picture
Overall, the population of England and Wales was 59.6 million, a growth over ten years of 3.5 million (6.3%). The number of households rose to 24.8 million (up 6.1%), and the proportion of people over the age of 64 grew from 16.4% to 18.6%. In almost all regions the population is growing and ageing.
A picture of the East
The East of England (Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Suffolk, Norfolk) is the fourth largest region, with nearly 14% of the population of England and Wales. The region has experienced the fastest growth, and includes some of the oldest communities in the country.
However, the picture is not uniform: the region includes some very young communities, and some which have experienced almost no growth over the decade since the 2011 census. There are dramatic differences in levels of inequality on a series of fronts.
Since 2011, the population of the region has increased by nearly half a million (8.3%). However, this is concentrated in the West of the region, probably because of good travel and commuting connections. One quarter of all the growth is in Bedford, Cambridge and Peterborough, all of which have seen numbers grow at more than 17% (three times the national average rate).
Growth is lowest around the edge of the region. Of the ten Authorities with the lowest growth rates, seven are in the coastal strip from Kings Lynn to Southend, with North Norfolk and Castle Point in Essex both seeing growth below 2%. It is widely recognised that coastal towns face distinctive social and economic problems, and this was the subject of a separate ONS report in 2020.
The number of households in the region has grown by 8.5% to 2.6 million (an average of 2.4 people per household). This is faster growth than the national average of 6.1%, and slightly faster than the growth in the region’s population. This probably reflects an ageing population, with more widows and widowers living alone, and young people less able or willing to settle down in joint households.
Like all developed countries, the UK population has been ageing for more than a century, and that trend continues (though it has slowed recently). The proportion of older people (aged 65+) in England and Wales has risen over the decade from 16.4% to 18.6%.
Overall, with 20% of people aged 65+, the Eastern region is older than the national average. North Norfolk is now the oldest Local Authority in England, with one third aged 65+, double the figure for Cambridge and Luton. The population is youngest in the South and West of the region, and oldest in the North and East. The proportion of older people has grown most rapidly in South Norfolk, Mid-Suffolk and Babergh, while much of Suffolk and Colchester have seen a substantial drop in the number of young people.
Nine Authorities now have more than a quarter of their population over 64. North Norfolk leads, with twice the national average, followed by Tendring and East Suffolk.
At the other end of the scale, six Authorities have more than a quarter of their population under 20, led by Luton, Thurrock, Peterborough and Harlow.
One important role of the census is to inform policymaking. It enables government to identify social and economic problems, and levels of inequality. To assist in this, Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI) have published, alongside the new census data, three measures of inequality for each Local Authority. These are levels of unemployment, child and pensioner poverty, summarised by dividing Authorities into five “quintiles” – from the 20% least deprived to the 20% most deprived.
Generally, levels of deprivation are low in the region. In all six counties, a majority of Authorities are in the top 40% on all three indicators, but all have pockets of deprivation.
Three Authorities stand out as most deprived.
|Unemployment||Child Poverty||Pensioner Poverty|
|England & Wales||4.0%||14.9%||11.5%|
The table below shows all the Authorities which fall in the bottom two quintiles on at least one of the three indicators (5 being the most deprived).
|Authority||Population growth 2011-21 %||Unemployment quintile||Child poverty quintile||Pensioner poverty quintile|
|England & Wales||6.3|
|East of England||8.3|
A positive average score for an Authority can conceal small pockets of severe deprivation.
All three measures are underestimates of the true picture because eligible people don’t always claim (e.g. only 60% of eligible people claim Pension Credit).
Unemployment is measured by the proportion of people claiming Universal Credit or Jobseeker’s Allowance.
Pensioner poverty is the proportion of people over state pension age claiming Pension Credit, which tops up income to £182 a week for a single pensioner and £278 a week for a couple.
Child poverty is the proportion of children under 16 (or under 18 in further education) in families which have claimed Universal Credit, Tax Credits or Housing Benefit at any point in the year.
More to come
ONS will be publishing much more data in stages over the next 6 months. The plan is to release data on the following topics:
- Demography and migration
- Sexual orientation and gender identity
- Labour market and travel to work
- Ethnic group, national identity, language and religion
- Health, disability and unpaid care.