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How accurate are population projections for East Devon?

  • by JW

As these determine how many new homes are planned for.

But the Office for National Statistics’ own population growth figures have just been questioned.


Today’s Coventry Observer carries a story which could have serious repercussions beyond the city:


‘Myth of massive population growth in Coventry exploded’ in new report, says countryside charity

THE ‘myth of massive population growth’ in Coventry – and the need to build houses in the Green Belt – has been ‘exploded’ by a new government report, say countryside campaigners.

The report published yesterday (May 10) by government watchdog the Office of Statistics Regulation (OSR) followed complaints to the UK Statistics Authority last November by CPRE Warwickshire and the Coventry & Warwickshire Keep Our Greenbelt Green campaign last November. It has called for the ONS to review its population projections on which future plans for thousands of new houses…

In a published letter to the ONS’s director general of economic statistics Jonathan Athow, OSR Director Ed Humpherson wrote: “You should work with areas such as Coventry and independent demographers as you develop new population estimates through the transformation programme.”

Sir Andrew Watson, chairman of CPRE Warwickshire, said “The Statistics Regulator’s findings support our evidence and also emphasise that ONS projections affect local planning decisions and can have far-reaching consequences… The planning authorities must now refuse the applications and review their Local Plans.”

‘Myth of massive population growth in Coventry exploded’ in new report, says countryside charity | The Coventry Observer


Here’s their correspondence:

Ed Humpherson response to Sir Andrew Watson: population projections and mid-year population estimates for Coventry – Office for Statistics Regulation

Ed Humpherson to Sir Andrew Watson: Review of Population Estimates and Projections produced by ONS – Office for Statistics Regulation


And this is from the OSR report:


The estimates are highly regarded, but there is a risk that ONS misses the bigger picture of what the population data inform and is not regularly sense checking what it does against local insight. Part of this sense checking involves drawing on the challenges from users in different parts of the country – in effect, for ONS to be open to the insights that come from people who say “those figures don’t reconcile with what we see in our area”. That is not to say that the insight should be taken without question. We are simply urging a creative conversation that regards this sort of feedback as useful intelligence to help sense check and quality assure the ONS estimates.

In short, then, we conclude in this review that ONS needs to build on what it does already and enhance its approach in three ways: improve methods; enhance communication; and embrace challenge.

Review of population estimates and projections produced by the Office for National Statistics – Office for Statistics Regulation


In other words, to what extent is ‘housing need’ in the Sid Valley and in East Devon based on sound information on population?

These points were raised in the VGS’s own submission to the draft Local Plan last month:

Local Plan – Issues and Options – final VGS submission – March 2021

Specifically, that it is impossible to make accurate economic forecasts:

Futures Forum: Climate change: “The forecasts are accurate, unfortunately.” And yet: “the history of trying to make economic forecasts is one of complete failure.”

And that the local body responsible for forecasting gets it consistently wrong:

Futures Forum: Is the Heart of the SW Local Enterprise Partnership delivering value for money? “Its below average performance – from unlocking investment to falling productivity – surely can only be seen as a failure?”


It also has to be asked to what extent the headline figures from five years ago are now out of date?

Population of Devon to grow by 52,100 – Devon Live

On the Devon County Council website, it is clear that the biggest growth in population has been in Exeter:

Population – Devonomics

But numbers are projected to go up everywhere in the county – including East Devon – although, as the case in Coventry suggests, these might need to be ‘challenged’:

Demographics – Planning


Here in the Sid Valley, ‘demand’ for housing has always been a difficult thing to determine:

Futures Forum: Allocating housing numbers in East Devon (2013)

Futures Forum: Housing crisis in Sidmouth – what housing crisis? … “Evidence for a housing shortage is hard to come by.” (2014)

With circular logic over ‘housing need’ and ’employment need’ feeding the current East Devon Local Plan:

Futures Forum: Housing numbers in East Devon … “The region, which is earmarked for 11,000 new homes…”

Futures Forum: Over-estimating the ‘need’ for housing and employment land in East Devon (2017)

It’s certainly generally been house builders who have pushed the ‘demand’:

Futures Forum: Persimmon, Sidmouth and “promoting well-designed housing that is sustainable and provides much-needed new housing…” (2009)

Finally, it’s all about how you calculate ‘housing need’, as covered on these pages recently:

The housing supply needed for East Devon – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Calculating Devon’s housing need by algorithm – Vision Group for Sidmouth (2020)