No, Brexit is probably not responsible for certain UK cities’ population decline

Oxford. Image: Getty.

This year’s Cities Outlook from the Centre for Cities shows that, while the population of the UK continues to grow apace, six cities saw their populations fall. More surprising is that, of the six, four are in the Greater South East of England. So what’s going on?

This group of four is made up of Oxford (a fall of 0.5 per cent), Luton (a 0.6 per cent fall), Aldershot (0.1 per cent fall), and Ipswich (a marginal fall of 0.03 per cent, or 40 people). They’re joined by Aberdeen, which maintains the falls seen in previous years, and Sunderland – where the population growth has been sluggish for some time.

Given the strong growth in the Greater South East’s population as a whole, and the growth seen in previous years in the cities themselves (as the chart below shows), their fall in population is somewhat of a surprise. Digging into the data shows what contributed to this.

Source: Centre for Cities/NOMIS, mid-year population estimates.

An age breakdown of this population data shows that three of the four cities – all except Ipswich – saw a decline in their population aged 25 to 49. Interestingly, this fall was seen in many other cities in the Greater South East, with a total of 15 of the 19 cities in this area losing 25 to 49-year-olds.

The components of population growth – migration to and from the rest of England and Wales, migration to and from the rest of the world, and the difference between births and deaths – show that the main cause of population decline in these cities was people leaving for elsewhere in England and Wales.

Between 2016 and 2017 the four cities lost between 1,000 to over 5,000 people to other British cities. International migration on the other hand, although not necessarily from EU countries, is actually offsetting this loss of population, as the chart below shows.

Source: Centre for Cities/NOMIS, mid-year population estimates.

As we pointed out in our response to the recently released Immigration White Paper, cities are heavily reliant on EU immigration of high-and low-skilled labour, especially in the Greater South East, with the most successful cities, such as Cambridge, Oxford and London, among the places with the highest share of migrants. While many predicted that the 2016 referendum would lead to a decline in this migrant pool, the data available suggests that this is not the reason behind the fall in population in Aldershot, Ipswich, Luton and Oxford to date.

This, of course, is only one year’s worth of data. Only time will tell whether the cities’ population declines, and their demographic make-up, persist in the years to come.

Juliana Lindell is a research intern at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.


 

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.