Are we at a turning point for population growth in the UK, by David Marlow

Only time will tell if the publication this month of Office for National Statistics 2016 mid-year UK population estimates (MYEs) will be a turning point in recent trends in population growth.

The 2016 MYEs present data on the cusp of last year's referendum on leaving the European Union. Trends since at least 2011 were largely reinforced. The 538,000 increase in population over 2015-16 is the largest since the aftermath of World War Two, exceeding the 2006-16 ten year annual average of 482,000. It is driven by international migration which accounts for 62.4 per cent of the 2015-16 rise. Continuing rising birth rates (0.7 per cent higher than 2015) and falling death rates (2.6 per cent lower) accelerate rates of indigenous growth.

England (0.9% over 2015-16) is growing faster than the other nations, with London (1.32%) rising at almost three times the rate of Wales (0.45%) and the North East (0.47%). What is extraordinary, though, is that within London, rates of change in the past year range from +3.26% in Tower Hamlets to -0.62% in Kensington and Chelsea (a reduction of almost 1000 persons).

ONS England sub-national projections for 2016 population based on 2014 data are already exceeded by 49,000 (almost 0.1%), but in London alone by 44,000 (0.5%). At the other end of the scale, 26 local authorities showed population decreases. 17 of these are in coastal areas.

The population continues to age. 18% (11.8m) of the 2016 population is estimated to be over 65. This hides a huge range of aging density - from 33.3% over 65 in West Somerset (and over 30% in four other rural districts) to under 10% in ten London boroughs, Manchester and Slough.

The median age is over 50 in 13 rural and coastal districts (seven in the South West), but under 33 in 17 urban ones - including seven London boroughs, five 'core cities', and in Coventry, Southampton, Leicester, Oxford and Cambridge. Over five years, working age population (16-64) has risen 5.4% in London, fallen in Wales, North East and North West, and flat-lined (under 1.5% change) elsewhere.

Internal migration remains as, if not more, important to local areas than international migration, with over 2.85 million inter-LA movements in 2015-16. Some, generally more dynamic, communities - especially with Universities - can see inflows and outflows of up to 10% of their population in a year. There is a tendency of outflows from London to the South and East as young people start and grow families. There are high levels of inflows for retirement, especially in the South West.

All planning authorities will wish to interrogate and analyse data in this and accompanying publications as they continue their strategic and local planning processes.

Will future figures, though, reinforce or begin to reconfigure the strong trends of the last five years?

If net international migration falls, and London's preeminent position in Europe falters, will rapid growth slow? And, as median ages in some districts rises towards 60, at what stage does the whole system become unsustainable in both labour market and fiscal terms?

The UK needs radical new patterns of spatial development. Planners needs to be at the forefront of providing futures work, scenario and contingency analyses that will inform and ultimately deliver this.

David Marlow is chief executive of consultancy Third Life Economics 

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