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2011 UK census

March 2013

Prompted by rapid population growth, the UK government ordered the first national census to take place in 1801. The UK census counts the total population and records its characteristics, such as age, gender, employment and health. A census has been carried out every 10 years since 1801, except during wartime in 1941

2011 UK Census

A large amount of data is produced as a result of the census. This makes it one of the most valuable secondary sources in the UK. Governments, business and other organisations use the data to understand the characteristics of UK population and make planning decisions accordingly.  


This article presents students with up-to-date UK census data and develops students’ ability to interpret geographical information. The activity seeks to develop geographical skills and research techniques.
As well as providing a grounded understanding of secondary data, this resource may also be useful for teaching of population and migration in the UK.

Documents to download

Why does the UK have a census?

The UK population is constantly changing. The census is a way of measuring and then describing the characteristics of that population. The data produced from the census helps us understand the population of the UK according to a variety of factors, including: household accommodation, demographic characteristics (such as sex, age and marital status), migration, health and employment.

How is census data available?

The UK census collects data about the population and is conducted every 10 years, most recently in 2011. The 2011 Census statistics for the UK are being released in four stages between November 2012 and July 2013. This is due to the great depth and breadth of data that was collected.

What is the data used for?

The data collected helps the government, businesses, academics, NGOs and the general public to understand how we, as a nation, live. The data helps us understand how the characteristics of the UK population vary over time and space, which helps in planning a range of services.

For example, an accurate count of population allows the Government to distribute funds among local authorities. Likewise, an understanding of general health, long-term illness and carers enables the planning of health and social services.

Is the data not available elsewhere?

"No alternative source would provide the quality of data required," the Office for National Statistics (ONS) explains. Local councils and other organisations do collect data but the census is unique in providing a comprehensive and consistent set of data on a national scale.

Will we always have a census?

The UK census may not be needed if some form of ‘national identity register’ were to be developed in the future. Due to technical and administrative issues, the implementation of such a system can take up to 30 years, as proven by such efforts in Scandavian countries.

However, there has been a significant change in policy in relation to attempts to develop a a national identity register in the UK. The previous Labour Government sought to develop an identification card. However, with the election of the Coalition Government in 2010 came a change of policy. As a result, the fingerprints and personal details of millions of ID card holders werepublicly destroyed by then-Home Office minister Damian Green in February 2011.

How was the UK census data collected?

Each household in the UK received a questionnaire in the post. This can be submitted either online or by post. Many European countries use a similar method, however all Eastern European countries carry out interviews rather than questionnaires.

How do you access the UK census data?

The data is available to download for free from the ONS, where you can download Excel spreadsheets of specific factors. The data is grouped into geographical areas, such as boroughs or wards (a sub-division of a borough).

However, due to the wealth of data available, these detailed spreadsheets can be tricky to make sense of. That’s why we we’ve done much of the hard work for you! Download our simplified set of census data and follow our worksheet to create an interactive map of the UK.


Complete the digital mapping worksheet and answer these questions in relation to the map you produce. Alternatively, refer to the UK population distribution map in the 2011 census infographic above.

1. Describe the pattern of population density (4)
2. Describe and explain the difference in population density between 2001 and 2011 (6)
3. Suggest factors responsible for the changing population density (6)
4. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of digital mapping (4)
5. Comment on the effectiveness of the map in presenting data (3)
6. Comment on the limitations of UK census data (3)

Best of the web

Article: Census 2011: Five lesser-spotted things in the data (BBC)

Did you know that women outnumber men by almost a million? That Eden in Cumbria has the lowest population density in England and Wales? And that people are flocking to Manchester. You do now, and this article suggests why.

Article: Census 2011: sharp rise in number of foreign-born residents (Telegraph)

The number of people living in, but born outside of, the UK has risen by 50% between 2001 and 2011, according to the latest census. An accompanying map and video investigate the ‘changing face of Britain’.

Interactive: Census 2011 interactive: find out the truth about where you live (Guardian)

Enter your postcode and be guided through the ups and downs of your local area. This interactive compares 2011 census data with that collected in 2001. Just scroll down… keep scrolling… and a little bit more. It really is as easy at that.

Interactive: Census 2011: UK population change (BBC)

These two population pyramids can be used to compare the age and gender structure of countries, regions and boroughs. Select ‘2001 outlines’ to throw a temporal comparison into the mix.
Map: 2011 Census interactive (ONS)

A series of interactive maps allow students to explore health, dwelling type, economic activity, religion, ethnicity and much more. The ‘100 years of change’ interactive illustrates the UK’s changing population structure over the last century.

Maps: 2011 Census Open Atlas Project (Alex Singleton/University of Liverpool)

Almost everything you ever wanted to know about your local area in 379 maps. A downloadable PDF ensures accessibility to all available census data in cartographic format. Select a handful of interconnected variables to develop sophisticated geographical analyses.

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