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Will Covid-19 cause London’s population to literally run for the hills?
11 February 2021
It seems hard to imagine that the changes in how we have lived and worked through the largest global pandemic in 100 years won’t have any lasting impact on how we live going forward.
The benefits of remote working have now been fully tried and tested – and for many individuals and businesses alike those benefits are clear to see. But will we now see a mass exodus from London to the countryside as people seek more space to spend more of each week working from home?
That was the key question I tackled alongside London’s Deputy Mayor for Housing, Tom Copley, at a recent London First panel debate.
A snapshot survey undertaken by JLL and London First in advance of the debate revealed that 1 in 4 of the 150-plus respondents now intend to move away from central urban areas in the next two years. And there have been numerous other surveys which have arrived at similar findings in recent months.
But is there any evidence of people leaving London en masse?
A closer look at London’s historic population statistics show that there has long been a net outward migration of people at mid-life stages, who after having a family, typically leave the city in search of more affordable larger family homes.
The coronavirus pandemic has very likely accelerated the decision-making process for these people who were highly likely to leave the Capital anyway in the next few years.
London’s growth from a 1 million-plus city in 1800 to its current circa 9 million has been driven by younger age groups and overseas workers.
And to question whether these groups will continue to seek a life in London is to question the future success of London itself. The UK Capital is a global leader in so many areas – finance, professional services, technology and the arts, to name a few.
As Covid begins to abate and life returns to some semblance of normality London’s employment hubs will thrive once again and young workers from both the UK and overseas will continue to flock to the Capital.
Indeed, rather than predicting a population decline, the latest forecasts from Oxford Economics as of the end of January 2021 show London’s population rising to 9.5m by 2030, albeit this would represent a slowing of the rate of growth seen over the past few decades.
Meanwhile, the homes needed to accommodate a mass exodus to rural areas simply do not exist.
Since 1991, the proportion of people who live in rural areas has fallen from 22% to 16%, while virtually all population growth has been accommodated in urban areas.
In order to return to that peak rural population of 1991, we’d need to build about 1.8 million homes in rural areas, which basically isn’t going to happen.
Instead of a major population decline, Covid is more likely to spark a suburban revival and drive a dispersal of activity across London, as well as its wider commuter belt, as people split their week in half between working from home and going to central employment and leisure hubs.
In the past there have been great changes in how we use space on the back of significant advances in the mass movement of people on a daily basis through the advent of rail and roads.
It is hard to see how such a monumental event such as Covid-19 and the advancements it has triggered around remote working and digital technology will be entirely reversed.
The great change this time might be in how we simply move less people as a collective mass on a daily basis. It could become more evenly spread across a typical week. And this could trigger environmental and social benefits with less crowded and more efficient transport and services distributed more evenly across the city across the week – the creation of move liveable cities.
However, this will not be without its management challenges. And the onus is on business communities, transport operators and local authorities to co-ordinate strategies for a truly liveable 21st Century city.
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