Nearly half of London’s boroughs still have fewer residents than they once did

London from the air. Image: Getty.

Between World War 2, and the mid 1980s, London's population did something surprising: it fell.

London grew rapidly in the 19th and early 20th centuries until, by 1939, the population of the area now covered by Greater London stood at around 8.6m. Then the Luftwaffe arrived, and for the next four and a bit decades, thanks to war, suburbanisation and the creation of the New Towns, it fell by nearly a quarter, bottoming out at 6.6m at around the time of the 1981 census.

Since then, it's started to grow again, overtaking its previous peak in January 2015. Today, there are more people in London than there have ever been before. Oh happy day.

In some ways, this description is a bit over-simplistic, because it's imposing a modern definition of London on a time before it existed. Greater London didn't come into being until 1965; so looking at population figures for that area in 1939 is a bit like looking at the entire commuter zone now. If we were to look at the entire metro area, it's possible London's population never fell at all.

The different trajectories of inner and outer London’s populations. Source: CityMetric/census data.

At any rate, the point is that, from early in the 20th century, London's workforce were increasingly living at a distance from the centre of the city and commuting in. One odd side effect of this is that many of its inner boroughs actually have smaller populations – in some cases, much smaller – than they did in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. In 1901, what is now Tower Hamlets was home to 597,000 people. By 1981, it was just 142,000, and even by 2015 it was just 297,000.

To get a sense of when the different boroughs peaked, in 2010, the urban planning researcher Steve Chambers made a map. It showed the year at which each borough's population historically peaked, before dropping back again.

That, though, contained a few inaccuracies (hat tip: Neal Hudson), so we've double checked the data on the London Datastore and produced our own version. Here it is:

One quick note on this. One is that the population of the City of London was higher in 1881 than at any year since – but it was even higher in 1871, and higher still in each decade before that, going all the way back to when recrods began in 1821. It's entirely possible it was at its most densely populated before anyone bothered to count.

Anyway. As Chambers wrote in a blogpost at the time,

the population peaks for each borough tell a story in themselves of people moving outwards, deserting the inner core and, come the 1960s and 1970s, leaving London altogether.

Those figures obviously predate the 2011 census, though, and the world has changed asince then. So here's another map.

The green/blue boroughs are those which still have fewer residents than they once did; once again, the year represents the census at which their population peaked.

The pink/red boroughs are those which have overtaken their previous peak. There, the year represents the first census (or, for 2015, mid-year estimate) at which they over-took that peak.

What you can see at a glance is that outer London is now as heavily populated as it's ever been. But much of the inner city is still empty compared to how it once was. In all, there are still 14 boroughs, plus the City of London, where the population has yet to return to its former peak.

Editor's note: This story was heavily corrected at 11am on 21 March to reflect the fact we'd muffed up the data. Sorry about that. The story remains unchanged however.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.