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Blog: What’s at stake with changing the census?

The census is facing change.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is consulting on two suggested approaches for the future – a primarily online census, or one using existing government and private data, and compulsory annual surveys. The first would still be taken every ten years; the second would produce a  population ‘snapshot’ annually.
Why propose change now? The reason seems to be cost. In 2011, the census cost £482 million and needed 40,000 staff. This was 35 per cent more in real terms than in 2001 and costs are likely to increase again by 2021. The ONS predicts that a full census would cost about £625 million. An annual sample would require £460 million over ten years.
The government has also said that compiling existing data would produce more accurate and timely information. It’s true that a census every ten years can mean a time lag in critical data: the 2011 census discovered 480,000 more people than expected.
But Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at Oxford University, has argued that moving away from the existing approach would make it harder to track significant social changes, leaving councils “flailing in the dark when it comes to strategic decisions and informed budget-setting”.
Dorling argues that smaller sample surveys already provide “inferential statistics”, while the census enables more comprehensive analysis. Dorling cites  the example of Ludi Simpson and Stephen Jivraj at the University of Manchester who used 2011 census data to show that ethnic minority groups had become more dispersed despite rising numbers – in contrast to media reports claiming that higher numbers meant greater ethnic polarisation.
According to this view, if the census were to be replaced with annual surveys, reliable statistics would only be produced down to local authority level; at present, data can be available for areas with populations as small as 100-125 people. This could make it impossible for authorities to plan and deliver services for local populations, especially in highly populous and diverse areas.
There are also issues that are especially pertinent to planners – whether, for example, abolishing the census in its current form would undercut efforts to promote spatial thinking in policy beyond planning. Population data played a major part in the development of planning as a profession. There is more at stake than saving money alone.
Dr Michael Harris is deputy head of policy and research at the Royal Town Planning Institute. This is an abridged version of an article first published on the RTPI website.


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