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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Two east London boroughs are planning to tax nightlife to fund the clean up. Will it work?

A Shoreditch rave, 2013. Image: Getty.

No-one likes cleaning up after a party, but someone’s got to do it. On a city-wide scale, that job falls to the local authority. But that still leaves the question: who pays?

In east London, the number of bars and clubs has increased dramatically in recent years. The thriving club scene has come with benefits – but also a price tag for the morning clean-up and cost of policing. The boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets are now looking to nightlife venues to cover these costs.

Back in 2012, councils were given powers to introduce ‘late night levies’: essentially a tax on all the licensed venues that open between midnight and 6am. The amount venues are expected to pay is based on the premises’ rateable value. Seventy per cent of any money raised goes to the police and the council keeps the rest.

Few councils took up the offer. Four years after the legislation was introduced, only eight local authorities had introduced a levy, including Southampton, Nottingham, and Cheltenham. Three of the levies were in the capital, including Camden and Islington. The most lucrative was in the City of London, where £420,000 was raised in the 2015-16 financial year.

Even in places where levies have been introduced, they haven’t always had the desired effect. Nottingham adopted a late night levy in November 2014. Last year, it emerged that the tax had raised £150,000 less than expected in its first year. Only a few months before, Cheltenham scrapped its levy after it similarly failed to meet expectations.


Last year, the House of Lords committee published its review of the 2003 Licensing Act. The committee found that “hardly any respondents believed that late night levies were currently working as they should be” – and councils reported that the obligation to pass revenues from the levy to the police had made the tax unappealing. Concluding its findings on the late night levy, the committee said: “We believe on balance that it has failed to achieve its objectives, and should be abolished.”

As might be expected of a nightlife tax, late night levies are also vociferously opposed by the hospitality industry. Commenting on the proposed levy in Tower Hamlets, Brigid Simmonds, chief executive at the British Beer and Pub Association, said: “A levy would represent a damaging new tax – it is the wrong approach. The focus should be on partnership working, with the police and local business, to address any issues in the night time economy.”

Nevertheless, boroughs in east London are pressing ahead with their plans. Tower Hamlets was recently forced to restart a consultation on its late night levy after a first attempt was the subject of a successful legal challenge by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR). Kate Nicholls, chief executive at the ALMR, said:

“We will continue to oppose these measures wherever they are considered in any part of the UK and will urge local authorities’ to work with businesses, not against them, to find solutions to any issues they may have.”

Meanwhile, Hackney council intends to introduce a levy after a consultation which revealed 52 per cents of respondents were in favour of the plans. Announcing the consultation in February, licensing chair Emma Plouviez said:

“With ever-shrinking budgets, we need to find a way to ensure the our nightlife can continue to operate safely, so we’re considering looking to these businesses for a contribution towards making sure their customers can enjoy a safe night out and their neighbours and surrounding community doesn’t suffer.”

With budgets stretched, it’s inevitable that councils will seek to take advantage of any source of income they can. Nevertheless, earlier examples of the late night levy suggest this nightlife tax is unlikely to prove as lucrative as is hoped. Even if it does, should we expect nightlife venues to plug the gap left by public sector cuts?