It’s only a few years since Greater London’s population passed its 1939 peak after decades of decline that reversed in the 1980s — and now a new decline may be on the horizon.
The combination of Covid-19 and Brexit are to blame, according to a report by PWC.
The Brexit impact is economic, fewer people wanting, or able, to come to London for work, along with a shrinking economy meaning fewer jobs to fill anyway.
The report also predicts that as much as 416,000 Londoners will definitely move home and leave the city this year. However, there’s always a however, the main claim in the PWC report about people wanting to move home is based on a fairly small sample size survey of just 450 self-selecting respondents carried out late last July by the London Assembly Housing Committee.
The problem with an online self-selecting survey is that they generally don’t include people not interested in the topic. If you’re not that interested in moving home, then a survey about moving home is less interesting to you to complete, so there’s a bias in the responses.
It’s not to say the report is useless, but that any findings need to be taken with a very large pinch of proverbial salt.
It does, however, fit with some general trends that are emerging that people seem to be seeking to move if not out of London, then certainly towards the suburbs.
For example, rental rates fell sharply in inner London but rose in outer London as people seek larger homes with gardens, or proximity to public gardens. If the migration to the suburbs continues then prices are likely to rise much faster, thanks to the combination of higher demand and a general difficulty in building new homes in the suburbs.
It’s likely that with an increase in working from home — that’s more likely to be a few days a week at home with some at the office rather than always at home — then demand for larger homes will outstrip supply by a substantial degree unless planning rules are relaxed in some areas, such as the (often not very) green belt.
A drift to the suburbs will put increased pressure on transport services, and with more people commuting into London from further afield could strengthen the argument for TfL to be allowed to run those services. The difficulty, politics aside, is that the huge improvement in service quality when TfL takes over services is due to it spending a lot of money on them. Something TfL is unlikely to be able to afford for the foreseeable future.
However, this assumption of a big shift to the suburbs is still far too early to predict. We’re all a state of flux at the moment, and even people adamant they’ll move out of London may find inertia setting in as we get used to the new normal, and the realisation that the visits to a cultural centre on the way home from work, or meeting up with friends would become limited to weekend day trips into town.
One interesting factor that may slow the migration to the suburbs is babies. Or more specifically, the lack of babies. For many couples, the arrival of a baby heralds a reason to move to a larger property, but there seems to be a bit of a baby bust going on at the moment.
Fewer babies means less impetus to move to the suburbs. For this year at least.
Whatever the future for London’s population size holds though, it won’t be based on a gratuitous headline-grabbing number in a report that itself is based on a small online survey from 6 months ago.