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8 November 2021

How Covid pushed a generation out of the cities

Thirteen thousand people from the UK’s 1,000 most deprived urban local authorities migrated to the countryside over the course of the year.

By Ben van der Merwe

Population growth has slowed in four of the five largest cities in England and Wales, according to a New Statesman analysis of the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Birmingham grew at just a fifth of the usual rate for the previous three years, while in London and Manchester population growth slowed by 26 per cent and 36 per cent, respectively.

The slowdown is partly a result of pandemic-era population shifts. Nearly 545,000 town and city dwellers in England and Wales took to the countryside in the year to June 2020, ONS data shows, including 86,000 from London, 13,000 from Bristol and 12,000 from Birmingham.

In London, the exodus was most pronounced in Lambeth, Haringey, Brent, Ealing, Lewisham and Hammersmith and Fulham. The populations of these six boroughs declined by a total of 20,886, driven partly by the flight of an estimated 15,666 residents to the countryside.

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Outside of London, the largest exoduses occurred in Oxford and Reading – both cities saw their populations decline by around 1,200 between 2019 and 2020. Oxford’s student-dominated Headington Hill and Northway ward lost 13 per cent of its residents, while Bishopsgate in the City of London lost 10 per cent.

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On average, the UK’s 1,000 most densely packed neighbourhoods saw their population growth slow by half, with 581 seeing their first decline in population numbers since at least 2016.

Far from being the preserve of wealthy retirees, the move to the country was driven by younger age groups, with 54 per cent of those migrating from the urban to rural areas aged under 40. Aside from 18-20 year olds, all age groups saw a greater movement from the urban to rural areas than the other way around. Under-18s were 58 per cent more likely to move from urban areas to rural areas than vice versa, while people aged between 40 and 65 were 57 per cent more likely.

Before the pandemic, no age group exhibited a significant amount of net migration into rural areas.

The new figures also shed light on the social inequalities underpinning internal migration in the pandemic era, with population movements characterised primarily by a flight from denser, poorer and more diverse urban neighbourhoods. The 100 most deprived urban neighbourhoods in England and Wales saw their annual population growth fall from an average of 0.7 per cent between 2016 and 2019 to just 0.2 per cent in 2020.

Population growth fell half as much in the least deprived neighbourhoods, going from 0.11 per cent to 0.06 per cent.

The 100 urban neighbourhoods with the lowest share of white residents saw their populations decline, in contrast to an average growth of 0.1 per cent in previous years. Britain’s whitest urban neighbourhoods, on the other hand, saw their rate of population growth triple from 0.07 per cent to 0.24 per cent.

Thirteen thousand people from the UK’s 1,000 most deprived urban local authorities migrated to the countryside over the course of the year, compared with just 5,000 people from the least deprived areas.

Accounting for population size, people living in the most deprived urban areas were 130 per cent more likely to move to the country than those living in the least deprived areas.

Far from a retreat of the urban middle class to their country homes, the story of internal migration in the pandemic era is one of a growing inaccessibility of major cities.

[See also: Who made more this year: you or your house?]

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