Is Central London really “Hollowing Out”?

Kensington terrace

Is London really “hollowing out”, as the international super-rich use a Chelsea address as an asset class, not a place to live? The idea gained momentum when the Census revealed the population of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) had fallen, leading to stories of “lights-out London”, but the reality is more subtle.

The country as a whole has seen the biggest population growth in our history, and London accounted for about a quarter of that growth. If there is any hollowing out it is extremely local and marginal.

In fact RBKC’s population was effectively stable – losing just a few hundred people, well within the margin of uncertainty. This remains one of the most densely populated parts of the UK so hardly a surprise if it found relatively little room for more people.

It is true that the vacancy rate rose to a high 10.8% of household spaces (with around 3,000 more unoccupied, compared to 10 years earlier). Many of these will be well-used second homes rather than actually vacant. The latest figures from the Empty Homes Agency show long-term vacancies in RBKC have risen, and are high for London, but at 1.4% not dramatically above the national average.

So this is not the whole story. Consider this:

  • The number of people in their 20s fell particularly sharply in the borough (against the trend for London), while older working-age adults increased.
  • London’s fastest growing household type recorded in the 2011 Census was “three or more adults with no children”, a level of sharing driven by high house prices. But in RBKC this was actually one of the slowest growing groups.
  • The proportion of overcrowded households in the borough fell by more than two percentage points in 10 years, whereas in London it rose by more than four percentage points.
  • The borough lost almost 3,000 flats in converted houses, but saw an increase of nearly 400 in the number of houses.

Another part of the explanation, therefore, is that gentrification has priced out the young single adults who are most likely to live in crowded conditions, and returned sub-divided Victorian homes back into single-family ownership.

As people get richer they want more space, and the very rich who can buy in RBKC want a lot of space. That caps population growth in a dense borough with few opportunities for new space to be built. But with around 130 people per hectare this is hardly lights-out-London. Nor does RBKC tell us much about the trend for London as a whole, which added another million people in just 10 years. It’s how we deal with that wider growth that really matters.

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