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Online census has its drawbacks but may help tackle housing crisis

06 August 2014

The Government has decided to hold an online (or mainly online) census in 2021 in England and Wales, according to Cabinet Minister Francis Maude’s response to the Public Administration Committee last month, despite concerns expressed by the Royal Town Planning Institute’s (RTPI) in its response to the future of the census consultation that an online system will not reach hard to access groups and that broader cultural change is needed for an online system to be widely accepted.

The current way the census is collected is not perfect, but an online census has risks too.

The census is important to planners and to the RTPI which represents 23,000 planners working in the private, public, educational and charitable sectors because councils’ Local Plans (called Local Development Plans in Wales) use information derived from the census to project and plan how much housing is needed in each area.

Although an established and trusted source of information, the current paper-based census takes considerable time to process, becomes increasingly inaccurate over time, and so is subject to interpretation. Earlier this year, the RTPI warned Local Authorities of the risk of overreliance on Government household projection data.

An online census offers the possibility that planners will have fast access to comprehensive information which could lead to more accurate housing projection figures.

Cath Ranson, President of the RTPI, said: “The current way the census is collected is not perfect, but an online census has risks too.  Critical to the success of an online census will be the arrangements that are put in place to secure information from those without internet access or who refuse to participate online and to demonstrate that returns are comparable with the 2011 census and, importantly, avoid exclusion from responding to the census introducing any bias. 

However, an online census does offer the tantalising possibility of faster, more accurate and comprehensive data to planners which would greatly assist councils in correctly assessing housing need for Local Plans. It would also provide definitive and unambiguous information which would help Local Authorities cooperate on housing issues which is currently proving difficult in some areas.”

The RTPI will be encouraging the Government to ensure that the 2021 Census retains and if possible improves upon existing ways to calculate commuting and internal migration information.