The long struggle to count people, properties and prices properly

Top of the Charts

Afternoon all,

Nature is healing. Just as flora and fauna nature returned to Chernobyl after the nuclear disaster, so the Lib Dems are re-emerging in the South West after their 2015 meltdown. The scale of the swing towards them yesterday in Tiverton is obviously a by-election special, but it reflects a wider trend of the region swinging back towards its liberal traditions. The Wakefield result meanwhile prompts a radical thought: widespread strikes driven by soaring inflation might be a bigger problem for the party running the country than the opposition, however cunning your plan to prove that Keir Starmer is in fact a loony left puppet master coordinating the lot.  Ludicrous I know.

Once you’re bored of commiserating/celebrating the results, tuck into this week’s reads, which cover the spread of local politicians for local people, and the history of the only way we have a clue how many people are actually in Britain: the census.

Have a great weekend,

Chief Executive
Resolution Foundation

Significant stats. You can’t understand something, unless you can count it. So the old romantics tell us. In 1800 Parliament didn’t know how many people there were in the UK, a nightmare for those panicking about the number of mouths there were to feed (a situation we’d never be in today). So the census was born (and thousands of social scientists’ futures were assured). The ONS has a new and fascinating history of our biggest bean counting exercise stuffed with great nuggets. In 1841 “the most popular occupation was ‘domestic servant’”. I think this is ‘popular’ in the statistical rather than job satisfaction sense. A recurring theme is the challenge of getting accurate answers, including from Victorian women being tricksy about their age. In 1921 it was the census rather than commuters being delayed by strikes. All of this is to whet your appetite because… the first results of the 2021 census will be published next week! Keep calm at the back.

Housing hotspots. If the cynics among you still need convincing about the value of the census then here goes. Some claim we don’t need to boost house building because of aggregate national and regional data showing that the number of households and dwellings haven’t done a bad job of tracking each other. But a new dataset (built on censuses since 1971!) shows this pays too little attention to what’s happening at the local level – with increases in residents outpacing that of homes in London and some parts of every other region. The challenges are concentrated in densely populated urban areas, including many areas with a high proportion of ethnic minorities – think Birmingham, Bradford, and Oldham. One extreme case was of 26 people in Newham living in a 3-bedroom house. It turns out not building more homes where more people are is a problem. Shock.

Proximate politiciansNew research (£ but summary here) from the always interesting Philip Cowley and team shows politics is coming home – or more precisely, politicians are. In the four elections between 2010 and 2019, MPs have become more likely to be born in the same region as their constituencies – we’re now up to 50 per cent. Everyone’s at it, but some parties are more local than others: Labour are more local than Conservatives, and Lib Dems are more local than Labour. MPs born in Scotland, the North West and London are over-represented. In part this will reflect changing political preferences, but I can’t help thinking this may also be part of a wider trend. For all the claims that everyone moves around the country for work these days, the truth is we’re increasingly staying put.

Perceptive petrolheads. Prices at petrol pumps are reaching record highs again, sparking a row about whether the 5p cut in Fuel Duty was passed onto consumers or just benefits firms. A recent study of fuel price decreases/increases in Germany offers some insights, arguing that it depends on how price sensitive consumers are: diesel drivers win more than petrol users because they are more frequent/price aware drivers. Obviously more competition = swifter/deeper price cuts. But there are other reasons to think tax cuts might be particularly unlikely to be passed on right now: supply is incredibly inelastic (any refinery able to produce more is already doing so) and loads of countries are cutting taxes at the same time. The overall result is that even if prices temporarily fall, supply cannot respond to the increased demand so prices rise back to more or less where they’d have been anyway. Sorry to bring bad news from the land of economic theory.

Counting costs. Inflation is all the rage, climbing to 9.1% this week. I get that most people are focused on the ‘how do we get it down question’ right now, but there are some really interesting questions underpinning how on earth we calculate it in the first place. If we can’t get you interested in them now we never will, so here’s a new Economics Observatory article on the traumas economists have faced over the past few centuries in trying to measure inflation.  It’s more interesting than it sounds.

Chart of the Week

A confession. We’ve generally stayed out of the Brexit wars over the past six years. Partly because everyone went mad, but also because detailed analysis was hard without knowing what form Brexit would take. But we properly Brexited 18 months ago, so we and colleagues at LSE have got round to doing our first comprehensive assessment (summary). The immediate effects haven’t been quite as expected, with Foreign Direct Investment holding up and UK exports to the EU not shrinking relative to those to the rest of the world. Instead we appear to be seeing broader effects: weak investment by British firms and the UK economy becoming less open/competitive generally, rather than specifically in relation to the EU. This week’s chart focuses on the longer-term impacts on the shape of our economy. Many predicted Brexit would fundamentally change our economy – fearing it would crush the City or hoping it’d cause a manufacturing renaissance. Our analysis suggests neither will happen: Brexit won’t fundamentally change the big picture service led nature of our economy. But it will drive big change for some sectors: we’re going to be doing a lot less fishing and a lot more food manufacturing. The long struggle to count people, properties and prices properly.