England and Wales population rises to record 59.5m

The population of England and Wales has hit a historic high of 59,597,300, according to the first results from the 2021 census, with a 20% surge in the number of people aged 65 and over in the last decade.

The count was based on questionnaires filled out by households on Sunday 21 March 2021 and is an 6.3% increase on the 2011 figure of 56,075,912 – an extra 3.5 million people.

It means the wider UK population is almost 67 million, once census results published last month for Northern Ireland, showing a population of 1.9 million, and the latest estimate for Scotland, of 5.47 million, are added. The total is on course to break the 70 million mark in the next five years, but population growth has decreased slightly over the last decade. The census results come against the backdrop of Brexit – which restricted immigration – and the coronavirus pandemic, which increased mortality in 2020 and 2021.

The last UK population estimate made by the Office for National Statistics was 67.1 million in mid-2020. There are 1.4 million more households than in 2011.

The snapshot of the England and Wales population was unveiled at St Alban’s CE primary school in Havant after pupils won a competition involving “counting things”.

It showed once more how the the population ageing. In 2011, 9.2 million residents were 65 and over, an increase of almost 1 million from 2001, when the figure was 8.3 million. By 2021 it had risen again to 11.1 million, more than a sixth of the total. The population aged over 90 broke through the half a million mark, rising to 527,900 people.

Under-15s make up a declining proportion of the population, and at 10.4 million have been overtaken in numbers by the over-65s in the last decade. The number of infants aged four and under was one of the few categories where the population fell.

The areas with the largest population aged 65 and over remained North Norfolk, while the area with the most under 15s was Barking and Dagenham, an area of relatively high immigration in east London. Almost one in four people (23.5%) in Richmondshire in Yorkshire are 65 and over, up from 13.3% in 1981. Milton Keynes’ over-65 population has more than trebled over the same period to 39,500.

The overall figures mean the UK remains the third largest country in Europe behind Germany, which had 83.2 million people on 1 January 2021, and France, which at the same date had 67.7 million people, according to Eurostat.

There are 11.1 million more people living in England and Wales than there were in 1981 (48.5 million). With 434 residents per square kilometre, England now ranks as the second most densely populated country in Europe after the Netherlands (507 persons per sq km), based on figures from Eurostat.

Tower Hamlets is the most densely populated place with 15,695 people per square kilometre, while the hills of Eden, which cover parts of the Lake District, Pennines and Yorkshire Dales, and Powys in Wales were the least densely populated, with 26 usual residents per square kilometre.

The census data is instrumental in national and local government decision-making on the distribution of funds for health and education, guiding locations and targets for housebuilding and projecting future social care needs.

It is the 22nd full census in Great Britain; the first was in 1801. The undertaking has happened every 10 years apart from during the second world war. Statisticians consider 1841 the first modern census, when the head of each household was given a form to fill in on behalf of everyone in the household on a certain day.

This may be the last census of its kind. The ONS has previously said it is looking at cheaper ways of gathering population-wide data, combining administrative data such as GP, tax and driving licence records with regular population surveys. The government has stated that its “ambition is that censuses after 2021 will be conducted using other sources of data and providing more timely statistical information”.

The ONS’s deputy national statistician, Pete Benton, stressed the need for more up-to-date methods of assessing the population, pointing out that the figures are already out of date.

“People continue to move home, some people will have left the country, others will have arrived,” he said. “People will have changed jobs, some of us now work in offices once again, while others continue to work from home.”

He said the plan was for “more frequent, relevant and timely statistics using data from across government to allow us to understand population change”.

More detailed figures illustrating changes in the ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, religion, language and education of the people of England and Wales will be released in the autumn. Data on health, housing, unpaid care, disability, work and the UK’s armed forces veterans will also be published later this year.

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