Home | News & Insights | 2022 | The 2011-21 census data for the Cambridge City region is astonishing – what lessons should we take from it?

The 2011-21 census data for the Cambridge City region is astonishing – what lessons should we take from it?


The latest release of Census data for 2011-21 spotlights something remarkable happening in the Cambridge city region, akin to industrial revolution levels of rapid urban area change.

Over the course of this century so far, the population of Cambridge City has grown by a phenomenal 33.8%, with South Cambridgeshire following closely behind with a 24.5% increase.

Cambridge is unique in the region and the UK in that this growth has been accelerating over the two decades too. Most places which grew strongly in 2001-11 did not maintain or exceed that growth rate in 2011-21. However, Cambridge is an anomaly to that trend.

Over 2011-21 the population of Cambridge grew by 17.6%, making it the fifth highest place for population growth in the UK, and the second highest outside of London (with Bedford being the highest).

Putting this in the context of other cities, the growth in population in Cambridge was greater than the growth of Manchester (30%) over the same time. Population growth in Oxford was much lower than Cambridge at 6.7%, with Oxford seeing growth in surrounding towns like Didcot (13%), Banbury (13%), and Reading (11.9%).

Another lens to look at this through is employment, with obvious connections between the number of jobs being created in a place and the population changes there. The Census data reinforces a Cambridge-specific link between job creation and population change as the city was also in the upper range of local authorities that have experienced an increase in working age population, with an increase of over 8% over the period.

Cambridge Ahead has been reporting on this phenomenon each year by looking “bottom up” at what is happening to corporate employment in our city region. Through this we have been able to show, with regularity, that new job creation in the city region’s economy has been steady, resilient, and has been driven by the expansion of innovation industries. Our Life Sciences Cluster, for example, has been growing employment by over 10% per year over the last six years.

The picture becomes increasingly clear. The Cambridge economy thrives off ideas and talent held by its workers, more jobs are created as more employers grow here or move here to tap into that talent, and the net effect is a rapid growth of population that casts Cambridge as a 21st century boomtown – in this case with ideas being the precious resource that draws people here.

What does this mean for quality of life in our communities?

One of the striking statistics from the latest census data is that there has been a 4.9% increase in household size in Cambridge over the last decade from 2.59 to 2.78, where the UK average is 2.4. This places Cambridge in the top four local authorities for household size in England outside of London[1].

Cambridge is also in the upper range of places where new housing has been built but taken together the two data sources suggest strongly that housebuilding has not kept pace with demand in Cambridge. Growing occupancy of existing housing stock raises concerns that quality of life is being compromised in order to live (relatively) affordably in the city.

Unaffordability of housing is a well-documented determinant of quality of life and something considered recently in this opinion piece by the Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council; https://www.cambridgeindependent.co.uk/news/what-happens-if-we-don-t-build-more-homes-in-south-cambridge-9261856/. Cambridge Ahead has long advocated deep consideration of the quality of life implications of not planning for growth. Beyond housing unaffordability, we have undertaken research to understand impact that congestion and public transport have on quality of life, as well as issues like access to green space; https://www.cambridgeahead.co.uk/news-insights/2022/rand-europe-quality-of-life-report/ across different communities and demographics in our city region.

Looking ahead and keeping pace

The fundamental question for a place like Cambridge is how to keep pace with this phenomenon, and the first part of the answer is to acknowledge that it isn’t easy.

Keeping pace means planning well for the population changes we are experiencing through the provision of space for people, space for businesses, transport infrastructure, utilities, and the natural environment.

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Review (CPIER) considered this question and concluded that models used to forecast future economic growth for statutory plans have consistently underestimated. In short this is because it is very hard for statistical models to recognise “islands” of dynamic growth like Greater Cambridge within the bigger picture of what might happen in a wider region like the East of England.

This has led leaders in our city region to respond proactively by acknowledging in 2020 that the development of the next Local Plan for Greater Cambridge needs to find more accurate and appropriate methods for our unique context, stating that “for a few sectors, East of England Forecasting Model’s (EEFM’s) modelled estimates of future growth are (much) lower than observed historic growth. These ‘key sectors’ align with those identified as Greater Cambridge’s most significant economic clusters.”[2]  

As a city region we are now finding new ways to plan for what is going to happen over the coming decades, with the recent Census giving us a firm grasp on our recent history that helps our looking to the future, and with the implications of keeping pace on quality of life and our natural environment firmly in mind.

Take-away numbers at a glance

Census Data:

  • Census data shows us that population growth in Cambridge was 17.6% in the period 2011-2021. This is the second-highest population growth outside of London, after Bedford (17.7%).
  • Since 2001, population growth in the city was 33.8%. This is greater than the population growth for Manchester (2001-2019, 30%), yet Manchester has had accompanied significant investment into infrastructure and housing to manage that growth.

Employment growth:

  • Employment in the Cambridge city region grew by 1.8% during 2020-21, whilst the UK average was -1.7%.
  • In 2020-21, growth was driven largely by Knowledge Intensive (KI) sectors, in particular Life Sciences (10.3% annual employment growth) and IT and Telecomms (6.9%).
  • KI sectors now make up 41% of corporate employment in Greater Cambridge.
  • The picture in non-KI sectors was far less positive at 0.2% employment growth – but this is still a positive position in comparison to the UK average context of a decline over the period.

Written by Dan Thorp,
Director of Policy and Programmes, Dan@cambridgeahead.co.uk

[1] Only Slough (3.02), Oxford (2.94), and Leicester (2.89) are higher.
[2] Greater Cambridge Employment Land and Economic Development Evidence Study (GL Hearn) Nov 2020


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