With a history that goes back 2000 years, and nine million residents today, the one thing we can confidently say about London’s people is that their experiences have been – and remain – hugely varied. Throughout its entire recorded history, London has been the pre-eminent city in England, and later in the UK. It has always been home to people from different countries, speaking different languages, although where people migrate from has changed over the centuries and will continue to do so. For some people, it is home for life, while others move in and out from other parts of Britain and the world. And it seems that the city has always had extremes of poverty and wealth.
London has long been the most populous city in the UK, but its population has fluctuated over the last two centuries. The 1801 Census (the first ever), revealed a population of just over a million, meaning that about 10 per cent of all residents of England, Scotland and Wales lived in London. 3 Today, the population of London is just under nine million, accounting for 14 per cent of all residents of England, Scotland and Wales. 4 From 1801 to 1939, the population grew fairly steadily, but from World War Two to the early 1990s it declined, with the sharpest declines in inner London – most inner London boroughs saw their population fall by at least a fifth. Around 30 years ago, however, this trend began to reverse: the population started to grow again, adding around two million inhabitants to date, although only recently matching the peak levels seen in 1939. 5
Trends in the very recent past are hard to discern accurately, but there does seem to have been some outflow of EU citizens since the Brexit vote of 2016. In the next 30 years, London’s population has been projected to grow by 22 per cent – about two million more people. This change is unlikely to be uniform: the number of Londoners aged over 65 is projected to grow more than three times faster than the number of Londoners under 16. 6 This is a significant change, and the capital will need to respond to it: in particular, it will need much more specialist housing as residents’ physical needs change.
Like most global cities, London’s population growth has been driven in large part by migration, both from other parts of the UK and overseas. Population movement in and out of the capital is fairly high – about eight per cent of the population move in or out every year, and many more move within the city, particularly as new areas of housing are developed. 7 These changes can be dramatic locally, especially when large brownfield sites are developed in outer London – for instance, the population of Colindale, in Barnet, is projected to double between 2011 and 2021. 8 The impact of these local population changes is discussed in more detail below.
People often move to London for work, and the proportion of Londoners aged 25 to 44 is significantly higher than for the rest of England. 9 Moving to London, and moving out of it, are both fairly common in this age group. Within this age range, the peak age for leaving London is 31, which may be related to a desire to move to a larger home in a cheaper area. 10 Perhaps related to this, the city’s birth rate is now falling after a period of sustained growth, and demand for primary school places is projected to fall over the next decade as a result 11 – some inner London authorities are already reporting sharp reductions in the number of infant school children, suggesting that the dynamics of population growth may be changing.
London has been a migrant, polyglot city for all of its recorded history: the Romans who founded Londinium had origins across Africa and Europe. 12 Since World War Two, many people from other countries have arrived to fill jobs in London‘s growing economy – the Empire Windrush bringing some of the first to Tilbury, just east of London. Others have arrived as refugees of conflict – from the partition of India in the late 1940s to the war in Syria more recently. Groups of new Londoners have often – though not always – started their London lives in fairly distinct parts of the inner city and then moved outwards. 13 Inner London has the largest proportion of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) residents – 68 per cent in Newham compared to 16 per cent in Havering. 14
London is sometimes held up as a beacon of tolerance and inclusion. There is some truth in this. Perceptions of community cohesion are fairly high, gaps in educational achievement between ethnic groups are lower than elsewhere in England, and there has been an increase in the visibility of business and political figures from BAME backgrounds over the last decade or so. 15 16 Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) people living in London are more likely to say they feel comfortable than those living outside London – and it seems that many LGBTQ people move here because they see it as a safer and happier place to be. 17 London’s public transport network and street infrastructure need more work to make them accessible for people with disabilities, but they are better than many other cities, and continue to improve. 18
Nonetheless, marked inequalities remain in education, employment, safety and health – made starkly visible in the higher COVID-19 death rates for BAME Londoners. 19 London households that are home to a person with a disability are one and a half times more likely to be in poverty than households where no one has a disability. 20 LGBTQ Londoners still feel less safe in the city than people who are not LGBTQ. 17 For the last few decades there have been high employment rates in the city overall, but mothers in London are less likely to be in paid work than their counterparts elsewhere in England, and in many cases high childcare and travel costs make work unaffordable. 22 Despite being more likely to live close to people of different ethnicities, Londoners are no more or less racist than other British people, 23 and there are disturbing indications that racist and religious hate crime has been increasing over the last four years. 24
Inequality, wealth and poverty
Big cities are often held to be more dangerous than rural areas and smaller towns: perceptions of London as unsafe go back hundreds of years, and are still held by some people from other parts of the UK today. 25 Some types of crime certainly happen more in the city: for the last few decades London, and particularly its transit system, has been a comparatively frequent target of terrorist attacks (both actual and threatened). The murder rate in London is about 50 per cent higher than the England and Wales average 26 and has been rising for the last five years. However, it remains lower than that of international comparator cities such as New York and Paris. 27 Young Black men are the demographic most likely to be murdered in London. 28 For less serious offences, the difference between London and other parts of the country is less stark: for instance, 40 per cent of adults in England and Wales report that anti-social behaviour is a problem in their area compared to 45 per cent of Londoners. Confidence levels in the police are very similar to those throughout the rest of the UK, but, these vary considerably by ethnicity: Black Caribbean people are much less happy with policing than people from other ethnic groups. 29
London is the wealthiest part of the UK in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and is also home to some of the wealthiest people in the world, with more billionaires than any other global city. 30 Earnings are above the British average, and in some boroughs very far above: the median full-time UK worker earns £479 a week, whereas the equivalent for London is £589, and for Kensington and Chelsea £772. These differences are longstanding, but earnings inequality between London and the rest of the UK has slightly reduced over the last few decades: London wages have risen slower than wages in every other English region. 31
Despite the presence of some extremely wealthy people in the city, average personal wealth is lower than elsewhere in southern England – houses are worth more, but fewer people own them. London does nonetheless have the highest pension wealth in the country, a legacy of historically high incomes. 32 Alongside great wealth there is also great poverty: a higher proportion of Londoners live in poverty than in any other part of the UK. 33
The difference is particularly stark for people at the beginning and towards the end of their lives, and for those workers on low incomes. The capital city “wage premium” for Londoners with fewer qualifications is far less than for their higher-educated counterparts, 34 but housing is much more expensive for everyone, resulting in high levels of poverty if measured as disposable income after housing and other essential costs. 35 Using the Social Metrics Commission definition of poverty, 43 per cent of London children live in poverty (compared to 33 per cent in England) and 18 per cent of London pensioners live in poverty (compared to 11 per cent in England). Restrictions on the housing element of benefits and caps on the total amount of benefits available have worsened the situation for some Londoners.
Poverty in London is compounded and complicated by other forms of inequality. As we have seen, children are the group most likely to live in poverty – although the disadvantages of being poor as a child in London are somewhat mitigated by the quality of the education system and the range of cultural and leisure activities on offer (in comparison to some other parts of the UK). BAME people in London are almost twice as likely to live in poverty as White people 36 – they tend to earn less because of racism in education 37 and employment 38 and, in some cases, because of the employment disadvantages brought about by immigration (particularly when people have come to the country unable to speak much English). Over time, these inequalities of income compound into inequalities of wealth and assets. London’s high house prices and the large deposits required for a mortgage mean that home ownership is very difficult for those whose families cannot help them with cash: three in five White British Londoners are homeowners, compared to only one in three Londoners from other ethnic groups. 39
London’s economic inequality drives inequalities in health. Overall, London has a higher life expectancy than the rest of the UK – which may in part be driven by lower rates of dangerous alcohol use 40 and of physical inactivity. 41 But within the city, people living in poorer areas live shorter lives, and spend a higher proportion of them in ill-health. Men in Newham enjoy 13 fewer years of healthy life than their counterparts in Richmond upon Thames. 42 This difference worsens economic inequality still further as people are pushed out of the workforce by their own ill-health or because they need to care for a relative. Physical inactivity levels among adults in the city are comparatively low – possibly because people make less use of cars to get around 43 – but, paradoxically, levels of child obesity are the highest in the country, with poorer boroughs faring worse. 44 This may be because many London children live in small flats with limited access to safe outside space, and cheap fast food is often more accessible than fresh fruit and vegetables. 45
Wellbeing and the future
As we might expect for a large and diverse city, reported levels of wellbeing in London vary widely. Overall, self-reported life satisfaction in London is a little lower than in the rest of the UK, although it has been rising for the last few years. 46 While poverty is generally associated with lower life satisfaction, this association is not strong for London boroughs: the two reporting the lowest life satisfaction are Lambeth, which has a comparatively low average income, and Kensington and Chelsea, which has a very high one. 47 Variation within boroughs – particularly by age – may be more significant than variation between them.
So what’s next for London’s nine million people? Predicting population change is notoriously difficult, especially for a high-migration city which is hugely influenced by economic and social forces. But it seems likely that, despite COVID-19, the population of London will grow over the next 30 years, even if that growth is bumpy. Many will have moved to the city from elsewhere in the UK or from other countries, and many current Londoners will move out. Housing and employment will continue to have huge impacts on people’s lives, and people’s day-to-day experiences will depend a great deal on how many new homes are built and what jobs are created.
These issues are covered more fully in the following chapters of this report, but the questions we will continue to explore throughout the London Futures review include:
- Do we want London’s population to continue growing?
- What does an ageing population mean for London?
- How can we best provide good homes and neighbourhoods for older Londoners?
- What is the nature and impact of discrimination and racism in London, and how might we tackle it?
- Should we treat obesity in London as an epidemic?
- Which aspects of inequality matter most, and what might we do to reduce them?