For the first time in the 21st century, the population of London is set to decline.
That’s according to Big Four accountancy firm PwC, who made the prediction in its January 2021 Economic Outlook paper. The firm anticipates a shift away from city living this year, with more Londoners leaving the capital and fewer newcomers making it their home.
The cause of this supposed impending urban flight? Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic shoulders a lot of the blame. Having been stuck at home for the best part of a year, PwC posits that people are placing newfound importance on spacious homes, access to green spaces, and a local community you can rely on — and at least two out of those three are notoriously hard to come by in London.
With so many companies having at least temporarily pivoted to remote working, Londoners have additional impetus to search for pastures new. A survey conducted by the London Assembly last August found that 4.5% of respondents would “definitely move out of the city in the next 12 months”. That number might sound small, but — as PwC highlights — only 14% of these respondents would have to follow through with the move in order to break even with pre-COVID ONS population forecasts.
PwC also suggests that the birthrate across the UK could fall, potentially “to its lowest level since records began”. In addition to cancelled IVF appointments and social restrictions that may make unplanned pregnancies less likely to occur, it is thought that people might delay their own family planning owing to financial concerns, health worries, or fears about social isolation wrought by the pandemic.
On the flip side, a survey by parenting forum Mumsnet found that the pandemic actually “played a part” in one-third of pregnant women’s decision to conceive. Across the pond, The New York Times reports a surge in demand for sperm donors — so perhaps only time will tell whether a baby boom or a baby bust is on the horizon.
Beyond the pandemic, PwC predicts that Brexit and surrounding concerns about the UK economy could prompt migration out of London. On a similar vein, migration to the UK from the EU is expected to continue to decline, and may even turn net negative as the Brexit transition period comes to an end.
So, will London shrink for the first time since 1988? It may well depend upon what lessons we learn from the pandemic. Economic decentralisation could certainly have wide benefits — regional investment would give those who wish to leave the capital a chance to prosper elsewhere, in turn reducing pressure on London’s bloated housing market. Whether London grows or shrinks, though, here’s hoping that all those issues which the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief — access to nature, the importance of robust community support, the interdependence of health and social care — are given the attention they deserve.