Census 2021 and reverse gentrification in collection areas: early detection and intervention

In our latest blog, Nicholas Allo, CEO at The Visual Earth Group, shares thoughts on whether and how release of Census 2021 data may provide opportunities for detections and interventions in reverse gentrification.

Every ten years, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) redoes its count of the British populace during a census. During this exercise, data that helps to determine the characteristic and idiosyncratic differences of, for example, metropolitan cities, local towns and idyllic but close-knit villages, is gathered. The census also offers a statistical view of the fast-moving, often unspoken but visually identifiable cultural shifts and transitions such communities experience. From the data collected and collated, it becomes possible to forecast future needs, changes and interventions that help make tracking such transitions a valuable exercise. Some of these characteristic differences being unravelled offer a view of immigration or migration-related changes and help identify newly introduced traits taking root within a community. Subsequently, Census 2021 data will be presented in formats that help Local Authorities and Counties plan, coordinate and deliver services to their multi-cultural residents and communities. Consequently, population geographers continue to make valuable contributions in the area of analysis and use of census data historically, in the UK and elsewhere. 

For Census 2021, the ONS adopted a series of digital tools for its execution and data management. In some ways, this should offer a robust, quicker and simpler way of achieving data heterogeneity. However, this will depend on how good the setup for the technology used is and how well the systems established are made to communicate a singular goal – delivering statistical insights about the UK’s population. This, however, is yet to be determined given the main census conducted, its follow-up coverage census and its affiliated compliance exercises, were recently concluded. Furthermore, Census 2021 was conducted in exceptional and unusual circumstances – the post-partial-lifting of restrictions to movement and relaxing a national lockdown order, given the current global pandemic. Given this realisation, certain safeguards must be in place to protect enumerators, administering census questionnaires to householders, and the ONS will ensure such teams are well trained for the job. However, what the delivered enumerator training, all associated efforts made to conduct digital population enumerations and all other related census processes cannot anticipate is how such transitions, in population traits and characteristics, directly or indirectly modifies visible community markers indicative of consistent population change and/ or transition. A salient marker for population transitions is reflected in the accommodation type on offer and its ready or growing availability within a community. As such, it has consequences for the prospective count during Census 2021.

The region of Watford, in Hertfordshire, which I have adopted as my area of interest, offers several visible traits that reflect what I consider signs of reverse gentrification (the influx of individuals and households, with a lowered disposable income, into a community, prompting an increase in demand for public or social interventions and also, a rise in the demand for short term accommodation). These visible signs are identifiable as newly introduced communal identities, reflective of cultural transitions. Such transitions evoke a new perception of what a community is and the steps its host Local Authority takes to cater to their evolving needs, reflected in planning permissions granted for developing residential accommodations and introducing new service providers to the community. But to better appreciate where this is headed, let’s recount what the phrase gentrification means. It is a phrase that implies individuals with a greater disposable income are introduced into a region and influence several communal perceptions and transitions that become visually evident. For example, after Census 2011, the new property developments in Watford were predominantly new build apartments, with at least 2 bedrooms. Also, several premium vehicle manufacturer’s sales outlets were introduced into the town. But over the last 10 years, many of these trends observed starting around 2011 have changed.

Accessing the online census form.

Between Census 2011 and Census 2021, small merchant stores and places of business opened and closed across Watford, reflects cultural transitions inferred that offer likely connections to migration or immigration led community changes. Furthermore, the availability of residential accommodation has gravitated towards offering smaller rental spaces and has also brought to light an increase in the repurposing of buildings to keep up with a growing demand for small transitional accommodation. The nature of businesses owned and operated also transitioned within this period. Plus, with the realisation of Brexit, another new phase of transition is being observed across the town. For the census enumerator encountering firsthand, effects of these said transitions, their interaction and experience are expected to vary from non-availability of a resident for an interview, to the likelihood of aggression towards an enumerator. Unfortunately, address files used by the ONS to identify each residence and its residents’, has an information gap that is at best addressed every 10 years and is transactional by nature – limited in the resident’s context available. Thus, creating situations where census counts or coverage surveys figures collated may fall below expectation. The academic view of this inconsistency in census counts will typically be associated with the known or defined factors that usually influence the outcomes of a census.

Is the ONS, thought leaders across Britain and will the government, namely central, county and local authority, giving thought to the impact of reverse gentrification on the outcomes of Census 2021? Are there studies yet to be commissioned that examines the influence of immigration and migration catalysing events such as Brexit and migrants crossings of the Channel, on visible community transitions and the impact it has on the outcome of this census exercise? A quick view of recent and past intercensal studies and a reflection on academic discussions on recent migration trends around the English Channels, by UN (2017), NRC (1995) and Walsh (2020), paints an interesting picture of the likely influences of reverse gentrification, its sources and methods of how these phenomena had been followed. However, geographers across Britain eagerly await the release of census figures by the ONS. It is hoped that having used digital tools and resources during Census 2021, the release of census data might occur sooner and there will be a likelihood of establishing new interpretations, data visualisations and ontologies that were either hindered by the manual processes of the past or newer data associations become possible given technology is used. But more importantly, the influence of reverse gentrification is hoped would become easier to identify by using data from Census 2021, providing a means of safeguarding communities across Britain from becoming modern hotbeds of social malaise and provide clearer insights to identify areas with a greater likelihood of being impacted by communal transitions and stretch a government, particularly local and county authorities, and its available funding beyond their means as the UK exits pandemic restrictions.


National Research Council (1995) INTERCENSAL SMALL-AREA DATA. Modernizing the U.S. Census. Washington, DC. The National Academies Press, pp 156 to 177

United Nations (2017) Principles and Recommendations for Population and Housing Censuses, Revision 3. Department of Economic and Social Affairs Statistics Division, United Nations. Available at https://bit.ly/3zPD2ks Last visited – 30/07/2021

Walsh P W (2020) Migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats: What do we know? The Migration Observatory, At the University of Oxford. Available at https://bit.ly/3ic7Zt2 Last visited – 30/07/2021

Nicholas Allo, PhD FRGS | CEO, The Visual Earth Group | nicholas@visualearthgroup.com

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