Research Project

Local Counts: the future of the census
21 August, 2008

Free PDF Download

Local Counts: the future of the census£500 million of public money could be wasted on the next census according to a new report. The New Local Government Network claim that the information gathered will be out of date by the time it is published, will be insufficiently detailed and could underestimate the number of people living in Britain.

The report argues that the survey, which is conducted every ten years and due to occur next in 2011, cannot accurately reflect the true state of Britain because of poor quality information on households, high rates of population mobility and a growing reluctance to fill in official forms.

Figures based on the census are used to allocate £100 billion of Government spending for local authorities and Primary Care Trusts. Failures of the census system over the past decade include:

  • the 2001 census undercounted the population by 900,000, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research
  • local authority areas have seen their population enumerated at 10 per cent less than their actual numbers

NLGN proposes that Britain should follow the example of other European countries, such as the Netherlands, who have moved to a reliance on administrative databases to provide a continually updated ‘rolling’ register.

It found that public organisations already collect data and information on citizens through a large number of streams and that these can be supplemented by targeted surveys to profile the population and its needs. This new approach, it is argued, should be introduced as soon as possible.

The research indicates that distrust of census statistics has already led some councils to develop their own population data from existing resources including GP address records, the electoral roll and geo-referencing systems. This means they can drill down to the neighbourhood, street and individual household level, and plot current and future demand for services or target vulnerable parts of the community.

If Britain were to move to NLGN’s proposed alternative, the report suggests there would be significant savings on the current £500 million cost of the census. NLGN argues that the new system could save at least £250 million, which could be better spent by giving each top-tier council £1 million for targeted engagement and communication with vulnerable and disengaged sections of the community.

NLGN Director Chris Leslie said:

“The census has been around for two hundred years and it is no-longer gathering the right sort of data for modern public services. We are left in a situation where not only does central government not know where it should distribute grant, but local councils do not have the information or flexibility to work out where best to spend money to tackle worklessness and crime, or to gauge where future demand will be for care homes and schools”.

“It is time for the Government to scrap this outdated method. NLGN’s proposal would make the most of the incredible amount of data already collected, drive joined-up services across government and save significant sums of money over the long term”.

To make this vision a reality, NLGN proposes that as part of its considerations into the future of the census, the Government should:

  • set up a new review including the LGA, statistical users and the new Statistics Authority focussed on how a new system based on existing administrative database sources could be introduced by 2011
  • institute a system for national address registration, transferring the civic duty legal compulsion from the census
  • establish a new duty on local authorities, their partners and central government to work together to share data to form the basis of population information
  • ensure that a national property register can be developed by resolving the ongoing frictions between Ordnance Survey and the National Land and Property Gazetteer. If necessary this should include legislation or the amending of the status of Ordnance Survey from a ‘trading fund’ to a non-departmental public body.

Publication Date: 21 August 2008
Authored by: Nigel Keohane