Cambridge Population Estimates – A Difference Of Opinion

the_queue08:18 Tuesday 15th October 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[P]AUL STAINTON: Is Cambridgeshire being short changed by the Government, because the official figures suggest our population is lower than it actually is? That’s the question we’ve been asking all morning on the Bigger Breakfast, and trying to come up with ways of counting people proper – better – whatever. But Cambridge MP Julian Huppert and Peterborough’s Stewart Jackson are concerned that the Office for National Statistics are not giving accurate figures for the number of people who actually live in the county. Johnnie D. can explain what that means, and what effect it might have. First of all Johnnie, who are these people at the ONS, and how do they compile these statistics?
JOHN DEVINE: Good morning Paul. Yes, it’s their job to collect all sorts of information about the population and present that to the public. And they use things like official registrations of births and deaths, as well as information about migration, to try and predict which areas will grow in the coming years, and which areas will see a decrease in the population.
PAUL STAINTON: So are they accurate? That’s the big question, isn’t it?

JOHN DEVINE: Well these are population growth forecasts. Forecasts is a big word there Paul. It’s a bit like a weather forecast. They can’t be 100% accurate. But what they do is they look at trends over the last four years. So if you have an increase in the number of people having babies, and a low number of people dying, then obviously the population will increase. But of course if there was a sudden drop in the number of couples conceiving, or a large number of people deciding to leave the area and go somewhere else, then the total population would fall.
PAUL STAINTON: Have the ONS .. how do they defend the conclusion that the population of Cambridge is actually going down?
JOHN DEVINE: Well Paul they’ve told us that the biggest issue with the City of Cambridge is the internal migration figure is falling. We’re talking about people from elsewhere in the UK deciding to move to Cambridge, say from Yorkshire, as opposed to migration from other countries. Now the interesting thing here Paul is the way they collect the figures for migration isn’t as accurate as the births and deaths figure. They get these figures from universities. They look at student numbers, patient figures for GPs, and from an organisation called The International Passenger Service, which deals with vehicle registers in other countries that are on the UK’s roads.
PAUL STAINTON: We’ve heard in the past of course about the problems in the North of the County as well.
JOHN DEVINE: Yes that’s right Paul. In previous years councils in Peterborough have complained that the increasing number of migrants coming to the city hasn’t been properly calculated. However, the City Council say the last census took figures that are now more accurate, and Stephen Barclay, the MP for North East Cambridgeshire has said similar things about Fenland.
PAUL STAINTON: Of course it’s very important we get these figures correct, and we count people correctly.
JOHN DEVINE: Oh yes. Absolutely necessary Paul, because these are the official figures that the Government uses to decide how much money they need to give to local councils to plan for the future. So they say the population of Cambridge is going down. They’ll give the city less money than if the population was rising. So this as you can imagine has caused issues where local authorities say the number of migrants has been underestimated. And it’s putting pressure on their services Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: Johnnie thank you. And I’m joined on the line now by Cllr Catherine Smart, the Deputy Leader of Cambridge City Council. Morning Catherine.
CATHERINE SMART: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: Is the population of Cambridge going down?
CATHERINE SMART: (LAUGHS) No. You only need to .. well, live in the city, and see how the small pieces of land are being built on. You only need to go out on the Huntingdon Road, or the Trumpington Road, and seeing all the new building. And the ONS figures were just wrong. When the Census, came, when the Census figures came out, it was realised that they’d underestimated the City of Cambridge by 18,400, which is really quite a lot of people.
PAUL STAINTON: We need a better system of counting, don’t we? ID cards would have stopped all this, wouldn’t they?
CATHERINE SMART: No, I doubt it. Because ID cards don’t tell you .. they are carried by people. But people move. That’s the whole point. People move. ID cards ..
PAUL STAINTON: Yes but you’d have it with you. You’d have an ID card with you and you’d be able to count it wherever you moved to.
CATHERINE SMART: But it has all sorts of other disadvantages, and I don’t honestly think it would have worked anyway.
PAUL STAINTON: What wouldn’t?
CATHERINE SMART: Well the County have got a system of actually taking a count of the houses that are being built. And their figures, their forecast, your previous person was quite right to say forecasts can’t be absolutely accurate, but the County ones were much more accurate. The important thing is that we do continue to have the National Census every ten years. And although it is not good, and that’s putting it mildly, that the figures are wrong in the meanwhile, at least every ten years it gets corrected. And that’s what happens.
PAUL STAINTON: We live in a digital age. Surely we can sort this out. Can we not have a log-on system every year, where people are required to log-online and tell us who they are where they are? This has got to be right, hasn’t it, because you’re losing out here with money.
CATHERINE SMART: Yes we are. They’ve adjusted their model a little bit, and I don’t think it’s quite as bad. But we’re still losing out, but possibly by not quite as much. But it is certainly true that we’re losing out. It’s always slightly tricky when population is on the move, which it certainly is in the Cambridge area, mostly on the move inwards. But the thing that is absolutely essential (is) that we have the corrector every now and again. And that is absolutely essential. And that’s what they corrected the figures, when the Census data came out.
PAUL STAINTON: This seems a really sketchy way doesn’t it of counting people.
CATHERINE SMART: Yes maybe, but it is an accurate way and it has been used as a corrector, and then the ONS have realised, oh yes, our model isn’t quite working for Cambridge. Hah. No it isn’t. Well we’ll try and tweak it. OK. Try and tweak it. Actually it still isn’t quite working, but it’s better. But they wouldn’t have done that if there hadn’t been the corrector by a quite different method. That’s the important thing. To have a quite different method, then it shows that the method that they were using was wrong.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. But by the time they’ve corrected it, you might have cut services, because you’ve got a lack of money.
CATHERINE SMART: Well you would have done. Yes. It’s much better obviously to get the forecast right in the first place.
PAUL STAINTON: The minds, the great brains that live in Cambridge, we’re told forever that there are these fantastic minds. Surely they can put their minds to this, and come up with a system that works.
CATHERINE SMART: Well we did tell the ONS rather loudly and at long length that they were wrong. They were saying that Cambridge has contracted by 3%. No. It hasn’t. And it only needed eyes, not brains, to tell them that. (LAUGHS)
PAUL STAINTON: Catherine, thank you for that this morning. Cllr Catherine Smart, Deputy Leader of Cambridge City Council.