Think Tanks
Printable version E-mail this to a friend

Britain is not a "small crowded island"

The 2011 Census, published recently, shows that the population of England and Wales reached 56.1million, up by 3.7million since 2001, and slightly higher than previous estimates indicated. IPPR analysis debunks some of the myths about Britain’s population and shows that overcrowding is only happening in London and the South East.

The three facts which are likely to make the headlines are that:

  • this is the largest increase since the Census began in 1801;
  • that over half (55%) the increase was due to net migration;
  • and that if we look at England only, excluding Wales and the rest of the UK, the population density, at just over 400 people per square kilometre, is higher than in the other G8 countries and all major EU countries except the Netherlands.

Matt Cavanagh, IPPR Visiting Fellow, said:

“Although this is the biggest increase in population size, the rate of increase, 7 per cent, is broadly similar to the rate of increase between 1910 and 1970, and only half the average rate of increase between 1801 and 1910. The rate of increase is above the EU average, slightly above France and Italy, but half that of Spain. Among the larger older members of the EU, Germany is the exception, with a shrinking population – something which is giving many Germans cause for concern rather than celebration.

“As for population density, we only come out top if we exclude Wales – and indeed Scotland and Northern Ireland, which reduce density much further. It is far from clear, for example, why those who claim to worry about “this crowded island” should compare England with the whole of Japan: excluding Scotland and Wales, but including the outlying, less populated islands of Japan. England is less densely populated than Japan’s main island.

“The Census also reinforces the North-South divide. Compare, on the one hand, London and the South East, and the North (which in Census terms includes the North East, North West, and Yorkshire and Humber). In 1991, they were broadly the same size: 14.4 million and 14.3 million. The population in the North then fell in the 1990s, and recovered in the 2000s, ending up 4 per cent larger at 14.9m. By contrast, London and the South East grew steadily, to 16.8 million by 2011: a rise of 17per cent.

“There are some exceptions within this broad picture: Manchester was the third-fastest growing authority in the last decade, though most of the fast-growing authorities were in the South, and the great majority of those that shrunk were in the North.

“If we are to take seriously the talk about ‘crowding’, focusing on national populations and densities is misleading, since it is really London and the South East which is crowded, rather than our island as a whole.

“Today’s figures show that some local authorities, particularly in the north, are struggling with the opposite problem. The fundamental driver is economics, rather than migration or birth rates, and the issues it raises – of planning for infrastructure, housing, and services, and more fundamentally, our attitude to urbanization, resource scarcity, emissions and other related questions – would remain even in the hypothetical scenario of zero net immigration.”

Notes to Editors

The new Census statistics released recently are available at:


Richard Darlington, 07525 481 602,

Mavis McKenzie Cecil, 07929 132 716,

Government Webinar Series