TAPAS.network | 11 March 2022 | Commentary | Barney Stringer

A turning point for the UK’s demographics – and transport planning too?

Barney Stringer

Population growth has been a core consideration in the thinking of transport planners for many years. But the latest data suggests a different demographic landscape may be unfolding, with implications for transport in a number of ways. Barney Stringer looks at the emerging new patterns, and their potential significance for decision-making.

LAST YEAR’S CENSUS in England and Wales took place in extraordinary circumstances during a covid lockdown. But when the results are published this summer they could bring another surprise – low population growth.

We’ve already seen a taste of this in January with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) latest interim projections – the last before Census Data is available – showing growth has been much slower.

Demographics underpins most public policy, from housing, schools and transport to tax and pensions, and in recent years the population has been rising fast. We’ve had a baby boom, rapidly growing life expectancy, and positive migration flows boosting the workforce. In the first 20 years of this century, the UK grew by 400,000 people a year, more than double the trend before the millennium. However now it seems that all the reasons for growth are starting to turn again.

The biggest reason is births, which peaked in England in 2012 and have already fallen by 13%, Economic uncertainty often leads people to delay starting a family, but there may be other reasons too. Childcare costs are high in the UK by European standards, as is housing – starting a family may now look prohibitively expensive for some people.

At the same time the remarkably long and steady growth in life expectancy seemed to have suddenly ground to a halt even before covid. It’s unclear why, but one factor may be that austerity cut the elderly social care services that local councils could provide.

And of course, on migration, Brexit ended freedom of movement from the start of last year, making it far harder for European workers to settle in the UK.

Then there’s covid. There have been well over 100,000 “excess deaths” compared to trend, and no sign of a “lockdown baby boom” as imagined by the press, instead births continued to fall.

There also seems to have been a sharp exodus of people during the pandemic, including European’s returning home, although we still can’t know the true magnitude and duration of this.

At the same time covid will make our population data less reliable. While Scotland delayed their census, England and Wales pressed ahead last year. The census form said that during the pandemic we should answer “based on the situation as it is now” and that was at a time when we’d been told to work from home if we could. Census 2021 travel-to-work data will surely be of little use calibrating transport models, but there could also be unknown distortions on the number and distribution of the population.

Population projections by the ONS have been racing to catch up with the turning point in growth.

The current population of England is now thought to be more than half a million smaller than we’d expected just six years ago. For the UK as a whole, population growth is forecast to fall back to around 150,000 a year by the end of this decade – returning to the lower rates last seen in the 1990s.

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This could have big implications for policy, and already some local authorities are starting to use it as justification for cutting housing targets. These targets are currently based on the old ONS projections but may change soon.

Quod works on many projects (housing and transport), that are justified on the need to accommodate population growth. Those justifications will get harder to make in some places, although things will vary across the county. People will still move in search of jobs, and some areas will still see strong growth that has to be planned for.

We should be cautious in how we respond to the latest demographic shifts. While there has been a sharp slowdown in growth, the population is still growing significantly. And we have done far too little to accommodate the eight million additional Britons we already have over the last 20 years. As well as this backlog, many investments – such as HS2 or Northern Powerhouse Rail – are needed if we really want to “level up” our economy, irrespective of population growth rates.

Demographic forecasting is also notoriously unreliable – the recent population boom was unexpected, as was the slowdown. The next turning point will also take us by surprise.

Experience in other countries suggest birth rates can rise if policy supports childcare and other family-friendly policies. And if the promised investment in social care materialises, it could help life expectancy improve faster again.

Migration is also hard to predict – statistics are patchy, but it seems that fewer arrivals from Europe have been partly made up for by increased migration from the rest of the world, meaning Brexit may not reduce net migration that much. The economy is short of labour, and that has to come from somewhere.

Events can also change things quickly – the new British visa scheme introduced for Hong Kong has already had over 100,000 applications in its first year, and hopefully Britain will also respond generously to those fleeing the invasion of Ukraine.

Lack of long-term investment is often seen as a weakness in British policy, infrastructure, and the economy. Slower population growth may help us catch up, but it would be a mistake to use it as an excuse to relax efforts to invest in the future.

Barney Stringer is a director at Quod, an independent consultancy at the cutting edge of planning, development economics, socio-economics and environmental planning, based in London and Leeds. He started his career at Local Transport Today, where he was assistant editor and twice winner of Transport Journalist of the Year.

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT841, 11 March 2022.

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