In data: capital flight

In search of more space and cleaner air, many residents used the pandemic as an excuse to get away from the big smoke. Could the exodus make a lasting dent on London’s booming population?
June 6, 2021

Arrested development

We’re used to the capital growing continually, but history shows this isn’t inevitable. In the half-century up to the 1990s, London got smaller, as families fled the city for a quieter life in the commuter belt. Indeed, the population had only very recently exceeded where it stood on the eve of the Second World War—before Covid-19 arrived which, potentially, has turned the tide again.

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Citizens from anywhere

The cosmopolitan capital has always been a draw to the world, and roughly twice the share of Londoners are foreign-born in comparison to UK residents as a whole. Migration thus has an amplified impact here—and last year it screeched into reverse. It swings around with student terms, but even in the run-up to Brexit it was still averaging out positive—until the pandemic. A crucial question for London’s size is if and when the normal inflow will return.

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Anywhere but here?

London isn’t the only metropolis shrinking from the virus—New York expects a dip too. But one city’s loss can be another’s gain. Home Office estimates suggest that 300,000-plus Hong Kongers could take up the offer of a visa and up sticks to the UK. If most come to London that would, on its own, offset the “Covid effect”

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Sources: Chart 1, historic data from census, as published in “London Poverty Profile 2020” by the Trust for London; Chart 2, the ONS: “Using statistical modelling to estimate UK international migration”; Chart 3, London “guesstimate” suggested by Tony Travers, LSE. NYC estimate by Descartes Labs. Hong Kong estimate by the Home Office. Cityscapes courtesy Robert Bye, Daniel Koponyas and Ruslan Bardash, via Unsplash