1. Government
July 7, 2022updated 11 Jul 2022 8:17am

Census 2021: What are the UK’s fastest-growing cities?

The first release of the 2021 Census shows that the population of England and Wales was 59,597,300, a growth of 6.3% since 2011.

By katharine swindells

The Office for National Statistics has published the first major release from the 2021 census, which tracks population sizes across England and Wales.

London census
The UK capital’s boroughs have the highest population density of all local authorities in the country. (Photo by Team Jackson/iStock)

Measured on 21 March 2021, the population of England and Wales was 59,597,3000, a growth of 6.3%, more than 3.5 million people, since the last census in 2011. That equates to 24,782,800 households, a growth of 6.1%.

Across England, the population has grown by 6.6%, with faster growth in the country’s major cities. Greater Manchester and West Midlands Combined Authority (Greater Birmingham) both also saw above-average growth. London outstripped both with 7.7% population growth, with parts of the capital seeing upwards of 15% population growth.

How is London’s population density changing?

London’s boroughs have the highest population density of all local authorities in the country, with a number being home to over 10,000 people per square kilometre.

Tower Hamlets is the most population-dense borough in London, with 15,695 people per square metre. It’s also the fastest-growing of the past decade, not just in the capital but in the entire country, with a population growth of 22.1% in the past ten years.

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Tower Hamlets’ growth has been in no small part driven by international migration, with almost half of residents born outside the UK. The largest migrant group among residents is people born in Bangladesh, but there has also been significant growth in the number of EU migrants settling in the area.

Tower Hamlets’ population growth is expected to continue as the area continues to build new homes, but borough leadership say they need more funding to tackle the high levels of deprivation and cope with the demand for services in the area.

The outer boroughs to the East and West have seen higher growth than more central areas, due to migration and people seeking less expensive housing, especially as improvements in public transport make commuting to the city centre easier. In fact, three central boroughs – Camden, Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea – have actually seen population declines in the past decade, in part due to the high cost of accommodation.

In Camden, the number of annual births has declined by a quarter since 2011/12, and the local authority has the lowest fertility rate in the UK, due in part to the high number of university students, as well as the price of housing.

[Read more: The City of London would be the ninth-largest emitter of CO2 if it were a country]

Salford is seeing the fastest population growth in Greater Manchester

Of the ten local authorities that make up Greater Manchester, three have grown in population more than the country as a whole. This includes Manchester itself, which has seen its population swell by almost 10% since 2011, up to 552,000.

Nearby Salford has seen its population grow by 15%, among the country’s highest, a fact credited to the high investment in home-building in recent years, as well the ongoing economic impact of developments such as MediaCityUK. Salford still experiences high levels of deprivation, with 19% of its population income-deprived, and Salford council leadership hope that the economic growth will continue to yield positive results.

[Read more: How Manchester is planning to get to net zero by 2038]

Birmingham’s population growth is the highest in Sandwell

Birmingham itself is England’s largest local authority, and still the only one with a population of over one million. In the past decade, it has grown in size by 6.7%, around the same rate as the country as a whole.

The highest population growth in the West Midlands Combined Authority has been seen in Sandwell, the metropolitan borough that includes West Bromwich, where the population has grown by 11% in the past decade. The population of Sandwell is now almost 4,000 people per square kilometre, not far behind Birmingham itself. Sandwell has a large population of young people and a rising birth rate, largely due to international migration.

[Read more: Here's why satellite towns shouldn't be ignored in the devolution debate]

Economic growth is increasing the population of Leeds and Wakefield

Leeds, England’s second-largest local authority with over 800,000 people, has seen high growth over the past decade of over 8%, as a growing economy particularly in financial and business services attracts new workers. Neighbouring Wakefield has also seen high growth, due in part to international migration, as well as large numbers of people moving to Wakefield from Leeds

In contrast, in Calderdale, the metropolitan borough that includes Halifax, the population is only around 3,000 people larger than it was ten years ago, a growth of just 1.4%.

[Read more: Leeds vs Bradford - How a tale of two cities shows the need for place-based growth strategies]

Liverpool’s population has grown less than the England average

The Liverpool City Region has seen population growth below the national average, particularly in the Wirral, where the population count has scarcely changed in the past decade. Wirral’s elderly population has grown by over 15% since the last census, while the population of young and working-age people has declined.

In Knowsley, the country’s joint-most deprived local authority, the population has increased by almost 6% since 2011, with increasing international migration and a growing birth rate.

[Read more: Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?]

Barnsley’s population has grown more than Sheffield’s

South Yorkshire too, has seen population growth below the national average, with only Barnsley’s population increasing by upwards of 5%.

Sheffield had seen large population growth alongside economic growth in the first decade of the 2000s, but struggled to recover post the financial crisis. In 2011, Sheffield was the third-largest local authority in England but has slipped down the fourth after barely any change in size over the past decade while the rest of the country continues to grow. 

[Read more: Some thoughts on why Sheffield’s economy has struggled]

Central Newcastle’s population is growing while Sunderland and Gateshead shrink

Tyne and Wear has seen the opposite trend: central Newcastle itself has seen strong growth of over 7% in the past decade as it saw economic growth and investment. However across the river, South Tyneside, Gateshead and Sunderland have all seen population decline since 2011. Sunderland has seen increasing numbers of young people leaving the city, seeking better job prospects elsewhere.

[Read more: How did an EU investment hub like Sunderland become the poster child for Brexit?]

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