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Read the latest news and commentary from our Evidence Hub team.

From 7 May 2024, The North East Evidence Hub is a project of the North East Combined Authority. We may still refer to the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (or "the LEP") in some of our news articles.

The 2021 census: A portrait of England and Wales during a pandemic

The latest census for England and Wales took place on 21 March 2021. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) have released initial census datasets during the second half of 2022 and there are many more to come throughout 2023. However, given that vast numbers of Government datasets are released each day, why are census statistics important?

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s (North East LEP’s) Economic Analyst, Eddie Smith, explains what data is included and how it can be used to look in detail at England and Wales during the COVID-19 pandemic.


The definitive population count

Each census is the starting point for a decade of annual mid-year official estimates of the UK resident population. These are at national and local levels. Between censuses, each year’s estimates are produced by updating those from the previous year using information about births, deaths, net migration, and other population changes.

Every 10 years, the census allows the ONS to reset the base data for this process and to check the accuracy of estimates throughout the previous decade. If necessary, this leads to retrospective revisions.

The first results of the 2021 census highlighted the importance of this process. For many English local authority areas, the census population and subsequent mid-2021 estimates differed quite noticeably from the mid-2020 estimates.

During the first part of 2023, the ONS will work to understand the reasons for these differences. A revised set of population estimates for 2012 to 2020 will be produced and there will be changes to survey-based statistics for these years, including the regional labour market series.

A detailed snapshot of the characteristics of the population

The first census releases have been a series of more than 70 topic summaries that include detailed information about single aspects of population, identity, work, health, housing and education. Much of the information is not available in such depth from any other source.

Future releases will combine topics to provide even more unique insights. Initially, there will be breakdowns of topics by age and sex. Examples of further census outputs include:

  • in-depth information about the lives of people of different nationalities and ethnic groups
  • details of the characteristics of workers in different industries or occupations
  • data about what types of people are not in employment at all.

The sheer volume of topics that are being combined in the data releases mean that the census is a key source for most academic disciplines. An added advantage is that all resulting analysis will be from a common survey source taken on a single date.

Information about small areas

Few official statistical sources provide data for English areas smaller than local authorities or parliamentary constituencies. In fact, many sub-national statistics are only available at regional level. Statistics for smaller areas are key because they often highlight greater differences within local authority areas than between them. The barrier to their availability is usually the limited sample size of the source but there is no such issue for the census.

There are census outputs for a range of small area geographies. Many people can identify the electoral ward that they live in, and census statistics will be made available for these. However, wards differ in population size across the country and are regularly changed, so the ONS uses more stable and consistently sized small geographical areas.

An ONS geography that is used instead of wards is MSOAs (Middle layer Super Output Areas):

  • MSOAs have the largest range of available census datasets of any small area type
  • they usually include 2,000 to 6,000 households and 5,000 to 15,000 residents
  • they are included on the ONS interactive census map (viewable by zooming in from the local authority level)
  • each MSOA has a name that identifies its location
  • there are more than 250 MSOAs in the North East and most towns and city suburbs are represented by one or more.

The smallest census geography type, output areas (OAs), usually have 40 to 250 households and 100 to 625 residents but only have a limited number of datasets available from the census.

The key source of flow data

Future outputs from the census will include origin-destination or flow datasets. The ONS plans that these will cover:

  • migration flows that highlight the movements of residents who had a different UK or overseas address during the year before the date of the census
  • workplace flows where the locations of workplaces and usual residences are used to summarise travel to work patterns
  • second address flows that highlight the distance to a respondent’s usual residence or workplace
  • student flow data that shows the migration patterns of people living in UK student accommodation a year before the census.

Flow datasets are particularly useful when attempting to understand local patterns of commuting and migration.

A portrait of England and Wales during a pandemic

The 2021 census provides an opportunity to look in detail at England and Wales at a unique time in history, when COVID-19 was impacting on the economy and on people’s lifestyles. Data users will be able to identify patterns of homeworking, for example, and to measure differences in health quality and levels of unpaid care, when compared to the non-pandemic year of 2011.

Throughout 2023, we will be adding census-based content to the Evidence Hub, working alongside other analysts and stakeholders in the North East. We will chart all key statistics for the area and for the local authority areas within it, including comparisons with other areas.

We will also provide in-depth analysis of the most notable changes compared to previous censuses and of the reasons for differences between areas. We are planning to use census data to categorise smaller geographical areas within the North East to feed into discussions of policy at a local level.

See the census data on the North East Evidence Hub here.

As well as being viewable on the ONS interactive map, census statistics are summarised in a series of releases which can be accessed via the ONS topic summaries homepage. Census data can be downloaded in bulk from the ONS nomis website, and the same site has census profiles for each local authority area.

If you are interested in our work and, in particular, if you would like to collaborate on census analysis, please contact the North East LEP Strategic Economic Planning team at