The Bevan Foundation
A lot can happen in a decade. In 2011, Liz Truss had been an MP for less than a year while Barack Obama had yet to win a second term of office. There was mounting excitement about the upcoming Olympics in London. And nobody had heard of Brexit or Covid-19.
Wales’ population has undergone some big changes in this time, some of which have been revealed in the latest results for the Census which were released over the summer. The headline finding is that Wales’ population is larger than ever before, having increased to 3.1 million in 2021. But it’s the more nuanced findings that are more important for business and the economy.
The first of these is changes to where people live. There has been spectacular growth in the population of Cardiff and Newport which, together, have gained a whole town’s worth of extra people (some 30,000) in ten years. In contrast, the population of rural Wales and the heads of the valleys has been at best static or at worst declining. Gwynedd and Ceredigion lost a total of nearly 9,000 people while Caerphilly and Blaenau Gwent lost nearly 6,000 people. More than a quarter of the population of Wales now lives in a tiny south-eastern corner of Wales comprising Cardiff, Newport, the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend.
This mixture of growth and decline have important implications for the business community. In areas of population decline, essential infrastructure, from schools to public transport, may be underused, wasting earlier investment and contributing to the contraction of services and facilities for the remaining population. There is likely to be reduced consumer demand which can result in shops, pubs and other businesses closing. Employers may struggle to recruit skilled workers, and there are fewer people paying local taxes. In Welsh-speaking areas, population loss further erodes Welsh language and culture.
Rapid population growth is not without its issues either. A booming population puts pressure on housing, schools, health services and transport, to name but a few, risking congestion and overcrowding. It can cause significant environmental damage, increasing carbon emissions, reducing open space and biodiversity and reducing air quality. Coping with additional people often requires additional public spending too.
The second big shift is in the average age of the population. It’s well known that there are more older people, but the Census shows just how big that increase has been. In the last ten years the number of people aged 65 years and over went up by nearly 100,000. At the same time the number of children and younger people fell, mainly because fewer people are having fewer children.
Wales’ ageing population has huge implications. Overall, we can anticipate increasing demand for health, social care and housing for older people as well as demand for retiree’s leisure activities. These are coupled with likely reduced demand for school places and for youth activities and interests.
One of the stand-out findings from the Bevan Foundation’s analysis of the Census results is that in most of Wales there is little evidence of a brain-drain of 20-24-year-olds. Yes, the numbers in this age group are significantly down on 2011 but that is mainly because there were relatively few 10-14-year-olds ten years ago. Crucially, we have found that the presence of higher education institutions seems to have offset the decrease in this age group in Cardiff, Newport, Ceredigion and Gwynedd. Cardiff stands out, with more than twice as many 20–24-year-olds in 2021 as there were 10-14-year-olds in 2011.
If higher education plays such a vital role in boosting the numbers of younger people, policy makers should urgently consider how best to ensure there are enough early career opportunities to retain the student population when their education finishes, and if a more distributed model of higher education provision could help to reverse the decline in other areas.