Through 2020 and 2021, numerous articles1 were written about how living through the Covid-19 pandemic was leading city-dwellers to reassess how and where they wanted to live. The switch to working from home was perceived to be severing, or at least weakening, ties to the office, while gardens and access to the outdoors were rising up the list of priorities. Some made predictions that these changed preferences would persist post-pandemic.2

But was there a pandemic-induced escape to the country, and, if so, has there been a permanent shift away from the city? This briefing reviews the evidence.

Box 1: Data used in this report

Population statistics: Data is published at the local authority level by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The data is provided for total population at mid-year (end of June), and analysis therefore considers changes between July to June, rather than calendar years. These 12-month periods are referred to as 2014-15, 2015-16 and so on.

Internal migration statistics: The ONS publishes data on movement by people of different ages between local authorities within England and Wales, and between Scotland and Northern Ireland and individual English and Welsh local authorities. This data uses changes in GP registrations as its primary data source and uses supplementary information to correct for things such as university leavers remaining registered with their university GP. Due to the increased interaction people are likely to have had with the NHS when Covid vaccines were rolled out it is possible that this data may have been affected, but given that getting a vaccine did not require interaction with a GP this seems unlikely.

Natural increase: Data on births and deaths is provided by the ONS. Deaths data is provided month by month, and is assigned from mid-year to mid-year accordingly. Births data is provided by calendar year. These figures are apportioned to match mid-years used for the other data, with an adjustment for variation in birth-month popularity (July to December (50.8per cent); January to June (49.2per cent)).

Private rental prices: Data for average private rental prices, available at local authority level, is published by the ONS. These data are experimental and are due to be replaced in Spring 2024, but are accurate enough to illustrate the differences between authorities over the period studied. Data is not available for the City of London.

Primary Urban Areas: The Centre for Cities analyses cities and towns using a measure of their “built up” area. The definition of Primary Urban Areas can be found at https://www.centreforcities.org/city-by-city/puas/

Covid-19 timeline and data: Data from mid-2014 to mid-2019 is not impacted by the pandemic. The analysis below uses data from these years to create a five-year ‘pre-pandemic’ average. 2019-20 is mostly a Covid unaffected year but captures the first lockdown so is not included in the pre-pandemic average. 2020-21 captures the remaining lockdowns and the majority of the time with most severe restrictions. ‘Freedom Day’ was 19th July, 2021. International travel restrictions ended on 18th March, 2022.

GitHub: All the input and output data and R scripts used for this report can be found on our GitHub repository https://github.com/CentreforCities/urban-population-internal-migration