The Death of City Living: Fact or Fiction?

The Blog


At the beginning of the first Covid-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020, there was much speculation that the pandemic signalled the end of city-living as we knew it. Faced with the prospect of working from home indefinitely, urban-dwellers were reported to be seizing this opportunity to flee from the ‘cramped living conditions’ of the city. Suburban and rural areas, meanwhile, were going to see an influx of new residents; a sudden re-evaluation of housing priorities meant people increasingly valued the larger properties and outdoor space that these areas could offer. According to data collected by online property search engines, the beginning of the pandemic saw searches for properties in rural areas increase while interest in urban properties fell. This led to warnings in the media that people were planning to flock out of urban areas and into the countryside, but did this mass exodus away from our towns and cities actually materialise?

Although at the beginning of the pandemic, there was an increase in the number of people searching for rural properties, this only really indicates intention to move and is not necessarily translated into actual migration. An alternative metric could be looking at how house prices and rental prices have changed over the last two years. 

Changes in house prices over the last two years could suggest a pattern of migration into rural areas. Indeed, price paid and rental data indicates there was initially a surge in house prices in rural and suburban areas, potentially caused by demand for properties, while at the same time prices and therefore potential demand in major cities fell. However, more recent monthly house price data collected by Rightmove, suggests that major urban areas, such as London, are beginning to recover. House prices in the Capital experienced higher monthly growth between September to October 2021 than most regions of the UK.

Rental prices paint a similar picture. According to Zoopla, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was an initial slump in major cities as rental prices and demand for rental properties fell; London was particularly hard-hit. However, more recent data from both Zoopla and Rightmove suggest that in Q3 of 2021, rental prices and demand rebounded in major cities, particularly London. This could be a ‘boomerang’ effect of people returning to cities after temporarily moving away during lockdown.

Until we have more informed internal migration data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the answer to what might have happened over the past two years and the extent to which it has become the new norm will remain unclear. Analysis of the ONS migration data has the clear advantage that it draws on a broad range of demographic indicators over a longer trend period, as opposed to short term property market fluctuations in what is actually a relatively low number of house sale / rental transactions in comparison to the resident population and total housing stock of any given area.  Wider housing market factors, such as the Government’s Stamp Duty Holiday between July 2020 and June / September 2021, are also likely to have influenced house prices and general interest in property browsing during the pandemic period.

Unfortunately we will have to wait until the autumn 2022 until we have ONS migration data covering the peak period of the pandemic (mid-2020 to mid-2021) and then subsequent years for any post-pandemic trends to start to emerge. However, in the meantime we have sought to interrogate monthly Department for Health GP registration data to see if any pandemic and post-pandemic trends are emerging. GP registration data is one of the data sets that inform the ONS migration data. When people more from one area to another they typically register with a new local practice within a relatively short timeframe. GP registrations can therefore be used as a basic indicator of migration change.  

We analysed the number of people registered with each Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) across England at three different points in time: November 2019, (before the first lockdown), November 2020 and November 2021. We then calculated the percentage changes in registration numbers. The total increase over the period November 2019 to November 2021 can be seen in the map below:

Top 10 most increased CCGs

CCG name

% change between Nov 2019 and Nov 2020

% change between Nov 2020 and Nov 2021

Total % change

North West London

1.88

4.11

6.06

Salford

1.42

3.91

5.39

North East London

0.86

2.91

3.80

North Central London

0.69

2.91

3.62

Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes

1.17

2.25

3.45

Manchester

0.81

2.37

3.20

Greater Preston

1.22

1.94

3.19

Liverpool

0.88

1.85

2.74

West Suffolk

1.34

1.33

2.68

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough

0.82

1.81

2.64

Top 10 least increased CCGs

 

CCG name

% change between Nov 2019 and Nov 2020

% change between Nov 2020 and Nov 2021

Total % change

Portsmouth

-0.89

-0.61

-1.49

South East Staffordshire and Seisdon Peninsula

-1.94

0.95

-1.01

North Staffordshire

-0.05

-0.11

-0.16

Calderdale

-0.13

0.21

0.07

Castle Point and Rochford

-0.05

0.13

0.07

South Sefton

-0.09

0.19

0.11

South Tyneside

-0.07

0.25

0.17

East Riding of Yorkshire

0.00

0.18

0.18

Newcastle Gateshead

-0.38

0.60

0.22

Morecambe Bay

-0.07

0.34

0.27

If people truly have been fleeing from the cities towards the countryside, what we would expect to see is that GP registration numbers have increased the most in rural CCGs and increased the least in urban CCGs. As seen in the map above, however, there is no obvious pattern between the CCGs which have increased the most and their rurality.

There’s also no strong relationship when we looked at the results in greater detail. Our largest cities don’t seem to have experienced the mass evacuation that was predicted; in fact, three out of the top five most increased CCGs are in London, while Salford, Manchester and Liverpool also find themselves in the top ten. At the other end of the scale, the ten CCGs which have increased the least are a mix of rural and urban CCGs. Given that the UK population has an annual growth rate of 0.5%, we should expect registration numbers to increase regardless of internal migration, yet three CCGs actually saw a decrease in registration numbers: Portsmouth, South East Staffordshire and Seisdon Peninsula, and North Staffordshire. 

Based on our analysis of the data currently available, reports of the death of the city appear to have been exaggerated. Neither property market data nor GP registration numbers point to any permanent trend of flight from our cities. There may have been a temporary pattern of migration to rural areas in the initial stages of the pandemic, but as the more recent resurgence of prices in major cities suggests, urban living remains as popular as ever. We will naturally review and monitor the detail migration data in due course and keep you informed of any interesting emerging trends!

Authored by Fiona Bruce, Assistant Policy Researcher

Nexus Research and Analytics