The Census and social science

Written evidence submitted by the Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) (Census 33)

1. The Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) welcomes this opportunity to comment on the inquiry into the census and social science

2. Given the spatial nature of data collected within the Census, social scientists within geography are amongst those who make greatest use of its data within their research, along with other closely-related subjects with a spatial perspective, such as Town Planning and Regional Science. However, spatial analysis and hence use of the Census is increasing in Economics and Sociology. The Society – as the learned Society representing the discipline – focuses on use by the geographical research community.

3. Formed in 1830, the Society’s Royal Charter is for 'the advancement of geographical science'. We are a charity that seeks to develop, promote and support the discipline of geography and its practitioners in the areas of research and higher education, teaching and fieldwork, policy and wider public engagement. The Society has more than 15,000 Fellows and members, of whom a substantial number are academics and other researchers whose work we support through a range of activities. These include holding the largest geographical research conference in Europe, publishing three of the leading international peer-reviewed geography journals in the world (including Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers which is often ranked first), co-ordinating twenty seven specialist research groups, and providing small grants for researchers at all career stages. We work very closely with all Higher Education (HE) geography departments in the UK.

4. In the preparation of this response, the Society consulted with and elicited responses from two of the Society’s research groups (the Quantitative Methods Research Group; and the Population Geography Research Group). In addition we received comments through a number of the Society’s Fellows [1] .

5. The key points of the response can be summarised as follows:

· Geographers, as social scientists, make wide use of the Census in their research, through aggregation of population data to the areas and regions; flows of population between areas; and examining how these change over time. This includes the understanding of international migration; internal patterns of migration; population estimates and services; public health planning; and the creation of classifications of areas; and transport, including mode of travel to work.

· The specific impact of ending the Census is heavily dependent on the exact nature of the replacement population data system, but the main risk would mean deterioration of the information social science research has at its disposal which would compromise Central and Local Government’s ability to make accurate decisions about funding services

· To achieve an alternative to the Census with data of equivalent or higher quality would need a full investigation of the geographical coverage of the alternatives as it is not clear that any proposed so far provide the same combination of small area detail and accuracy

· Other existing data sources that could be improved upon include the NHS Patient Register; the Schools Census; the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) record information for students at Higher Education Institutes; the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE); and migration data (based on the NHS register and International Passenger Survey / e-borders system data).

How do social scientists use Census data?

6. The census provides a common geographical framework for the integration of data from many sources and its small area counts are essential in allowing:

(i) Aggregation of population data to the areas and regions – including mapping, modelling, classification and analysis of small areas such as neighbourhoods. This work ranges from the construction of deprivation indicators and area types to the investigation of geographical patterns of inequality and the relationships (for example) between local social conditions and ill health or life chances, or in providing denominators for studies of disease prevalence or crime rates. This also allows for analysis of sub groups of the population e.g. ethnic or migrant groups; lone parent families; people in institutional accommodation;

(ii) Flows of population between areas - for which the census provides data both on travel to work patterns and residential migration. Understanding of such flows is essential to our understanding of daily travel patterns, urbanization, regional development, demand for transportation and housing;

(iii) Understanding long-term societal change by comparing census data over multiple decades, and even with the individual responses which are released after 100 years.

7. Specific examples of research undertaken by geographers using Census data include:

(i) Studies of international migration: measuring neighbourhood level population change of ethnic groups. There is considerable evidence to indicate processes of spatial de-concentration are taking place, particularly in London, where the majority of ethnic minority populations are located

(ii) Understanding internal patterns of migration: millions of people in Britain change their place of usual residence each year. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) Longitudinal Study enables Census records at the individual level to be linked from one Census to the next, allows these internal movements to be understood.

(iii) Population estimates and services: internal and international migration statistics from the Census play a critically important role in the production of annual population and household estimates which underpin the provision of housing and services.

(iv) Public health planning: health geographers make extensive use of census data on socio-economic conditions, demographic characteristics and health related topics and census data are routinely used in public health planning and assessments of service activity and outcomes.

(v) Creation of classifications of areas: The Census has been an important source of denominators in the creation of indicators of local disadvantage using more regularly up-dated information sources. These have been developed by the commercial sector to create powerful geo-demographic classification systems used in credit scoring, insurance and marketing and for predicting individual consumer behaviour.

(vi) Transport, including mode of travel to work: this is particularly well used by researchers as it is by transport planners, including use to define the official Travel-to-Work Areas (TTWAs) used by various Government Departments. In addition Census ‘flow’ data (e.g. journey-to-work) has been used to delineate functional urban regions and city regions, which identify the hierarchy of cities and towns.

What impact will the ending of the Census have on social science research?

8. The Census is an important tool for shaping and evaluating policy in the UK, and is unique in its universal (100%) coverage of the population and in the breadth of subject areas for which information is recorded.  It is the only current study which can provide the geographical detail needed to accurately show variations in British society and it is hard to see how attempting to reproduce this coverage by other means would be less resource intensive or expensive

9. The specific impact of ending the Census is heavily dependent on the exact nature of the replacement population data system. If the alternative provides the same detail of data, but at greater frequency of update, then the data environment for social scientists will have been improved by abandoning the Census. However if, as is more likely, the replacement will be a series of partial products – such as population estimates enhanced by administrative records, combined with local data on housing, economic activity and health based on government surveys, then there is a real risk it will not allow aggregation to a wide enough range of areas needed for research and policy purposes.

10. The design of any census replacement system would need to include a considered strategy for reviewing and updating the geographical basis on which all socioeconomic data are to be published. Further research is required to assess the geographical scales at which data might be produced from an enhanced system of social surveys.

11. The 2011 Census includes new questions which allow more detailed analysis of the migrant population, identity, the impact of student populations and the phenomenon of weekly commuting: further research is also needed on the ability of alternative data systems to capture data such as this – including travel to work and migration flows - for which we currently rely on the Census.

12. The main risk identified is a compromising of Central and Local Government’s ability to make accurate decisions about funding services (including schools and hospitals). For example, unless an alternative data source, based on civil registration of the resident population, is developed it will become much more difficult to make local needs assessments in for health service provision.The census is also important in sparsely populated areas, which are likely to be poorly represented in sample surveys. A very considerable effort to enhance the power of national sample surveys would be necessary to substitute for the census in this respect.

13. There would be further loss in terms of the sources of information compiled in the Longitudinal Study, which is an internationally admired source of data originally based on a sample from the 1971 census.  This provides a unique source of information on the currently aging population and other cohort studies have nothing like the same power to analyse local variation in important dynamic processes of aging, migration and health outcomes [2]      

14. Assuming no satisfactory replacement then this will mean deterioration of the information social science research can use to investigate the well-being of the population, with the real difficulties starting to emerge from around 2022/23.

What alternatives to the Census would provide population and socio-demographic data of equivalent or higher quality?

15. The ONS, NRS, NISRA and WAG [3] are all engaged in a project, overseen by the UK Statistics Authority, called Beyond 2011 (2011 to 2014) which aims to develop options for replacing the census [4] . Eight options are being investigated: (1) traditional census (e.g. UK Census 2011), (2) short and long form census (e.g. US Census 2000), (3) short form census and continuous survey (e.g. US Census 2010) and (4) rolling census (e.g. France’s current methodology) which uses a very large rolling survey and interpolation and extrapolation methods, (5) address register plus survey, (6) administrative data – aggregate (cf. Index of Multiple Deprivation), (7) administrative data – record level (e.g. Finland) and (8) administrative data - intermediate.

16. For further details of alternatives being considered, the committee is recommended to refer to the National Statistics Beyond 2011 project website [5] for further details. For example, Option 7 might be based on the reconciliation of existing administrative registers - including the new National Address Gazetteer and population lists such as the NHS and DWP/HMRC lists as the basis for an initial population register. Another person identifier is the National Insurance and the DWP maintains the "Lifetime Labour Market Database" which can trace individuals over time and across space

17. An important consideration in the evaluation of alternatives would be to thoroughly investigate the evenness of their geographical coverage and would be likely to require monitoring via some form of coverage survey, as is used in the 2001 and 2011 censuses, to provide confidence in the coverage of the alternative system across different local authorities and area types.

18. Although the matching of individual records in administrative databases my provide substitutes for some Census variables there are others (eg hours of work or employment status) where it is likely that research will be dependent on existing government surveys (such as the Labour Force Survey/Annual Population Survey) for information. Their existing sample sizes mean that it is not possible to use data from these sources for some smaller local authorities, let alone more detailed local areas. For them to be effective substitutes for the Census their sample sizes would need to be significantly increased – which would involve significant costs.

19. If the UK had a proper population register, as other EU countries do, with a legal requirement on all residents to report their addresses and changes of address and with an universal person identification, then the population spine would be as accurate as it could ever be. This would, as in other countries such as Finland, provide a sensible alternative to the Census. Parliament rejected the project to create a National Identity Card and existing cards have been cancelled [6] . Historically, a population register was first proposed (and rejected) in the House of Commons in 1753 [7] . The National Health Service Register covers about 98% of the population at present but could be extended to cover all the population by including all individuals not entitled to NHS health care or receiving health care from other bodies.

20. Monitoring of travel and migration could exploit new data sources from traffic and public transport monitoring, together with more determined development of existing systems such as the NHS register for internal migration. Some census questions would inevitably need to be replaced by enhanced social surveys in order to ensure continuity of information on topics not readily captured from any administrative source.

21. Alternative sources of commuting data are very limited and this is an area of acute concern to those who have used the Census commuting data for research. The National Travel Survey (NTS) is collected by the Department for Transport, and has been running on an annual basis since 1988. It is a sample survey, and in 2009 collected data from over 8,000 households. There is very limited spatial information in the NTS, with disaggregation by Government Office Region or ‘area type’ only. Even at this very coarse scale, there is no disaggregation by origin, destination and mode of travel because the small sample size does not permit the publication of detailed disaggregated flows..

22. None of the proposed alternatives in any of these areas will provide the combination of small area detail and accuracy that make Census data the one essential data resource. It is sensible to test some candidate alternatives, but this must be done without the expectation that at least one can replace the Census: the test should be "can an alternative provide the data the Census currently provides" and not "which is the best alternative, given that Census will be replaced"

What other existing sources of population and socio-demographic information could be improved upon?

23. A raft of new data sets are being released by Government Departments and other agencies that will be of enormous interest to the social science community if agreements can reached for the data suppliers to provide social science researchers with access to these data sets. The ‘Beyond 2011’ Programme is a good example of a context in which new and valuable data sets are being assembled and used by ONS. The Economic and Social Research Council must take a pro-active role in reaching agreements with data suppliers to disseminate these data sets, taking advantage of the open government licensing arrangements that are now in place.

24. Researchers highlight that other sources of population and socio-demographic data in the UK are very limited and should all be improved whether the Census of Population continues or not. The most reliable element of the UK population data is the registration of births and deaths which are very accurate and form the basis of the annual estimates of population made by the ONS and the Registrars-General of Scotland and Northern Ireland. It would be possible to add more questions about the parents or the deceased. Attempts have been made to add an ethnic group classification to birth registration, but this is difficult because the concept of ethnicity adopted by official statistics is a social construct and cannot be applied to a new-born child. Recording each parent’s ethnicity might be preferable, but this does not necessarily indicate the ethnicity of the child and may not be possible where the father is absent.

25. Suggested areas where improvements to existing data sets could be achieved, include:

· Migration data: both internal (based on the NHS register) and international (based on combination of existing International Passenger Survey data with robust counts from the e-borders system). Until such time as the latter are available it is difficult to conceive how adequate counts can be produced for international flows. There may be an opportunity to utilise additional data sources from business, particularly relating to energy use, car ownership, communications (including mobile telephony traffic, a potential new alternative for tracking population mobility), financial status and consumption patterns, but these sources are unlikely to be individually comprehensive.

· The NHS Patient Register data are captured at the postcode scale, and thus could potentially be published at more detailed geographic scales than is presently the case, but the lack of socio-demographic data in the Patient Register limits its scope for use in social science research.

· The Schools Census – known as the Pupil Level Annual School Census (PLASC) prior to 2007 – records a variety of information about pupils in state education in England. Access to data from the Schools Census is currently limited, especially and necessarily to those fields – such as home address postcode – which act as personally identifying. However, it would be possible for aggregate observations to be produced showing the migration of school children and also has the potential to generate a regular series of origin-destination matrices disaggregated by pupils’ modes of transport (walking, bus, car passenger, etc) to school.

· The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) record information for students at Higher Education Institutes, including the postcode of the student’s address (usually, their parental address) prior to entry to an HEI. These could be used to produce migration matrices showing the movement of students to universities and colleges.

· The Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) includes information about employees’ workplace and home postcodes, but it does not include any socio-demographic information about the individual, nor does it include information about the usual mode of transport to work. ASHE is captured through a questionnaire sent to employers (rather than employees) and thus there is no scope in the current collection model to collect any additional personal data, such as mode of transport. Even if this were to be the case, the small sample size (1%) means that no detailed spatial disaggregation could be made.

Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers)

30 November 2011

[1] David Martin, Professor of Geography, University of Southampton and Coordinator of the ESRC Census Programme ; Phil Rees, Emeritus Professor, School of Geography, University of Leeds; Professor John Stilwell; Danny Dorling, Professor of Human Geography, Sheffield University; Dr Martin Frost; Dr Darren Smith, Chair PGRG; Christopher Brunsdon, Chair QMRG and Tony Fielding, Research Professor, Department of Geography and, Sussex Centre for Migration Research, University of Sussex


[2] Riva, M.  Curtis, S., Norman, P. (2011) Residential mobility within England and urban–rural inequalities in mortality; Social Science and Medicine,  doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.09.030. )


[3] ONS (Office for National Statistics), NRS (National Records Scotland), NISRA (Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency_) and the WAG (Welsh Assembly Government)


[4] ONS (2011a) Beyond 2011. Online at:



[6] Home Office (2011) Identity cards. The UK National Identity Card and the Identification Card for EEA (European economic area) nationals ceased to be valid legal documents on 21 January 2011.Online at:

[7] Coleman, D. (2010) Memorandum from David Coleman, Professor of Geography at Oxford University. Ev 184, House of Commons Treasury Select Committee.

Prepared 9th December 2011