Census 2011: A snapshot of how we live

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Forms have been popping through our letterboxes for 2011 Census Day on Sunday, but why should we bother filling them in? Grant Woodward reports

THE purple and white envelope may have dropped on our doormat a couple of weeks ago, but chances are most of us have not even opened it yet.

But whether we like it or not, the 2011 census is here and those forms will have to be filled in sooner or later if we don’t want to run the risk of a £1,000 fine.

Blame William Pitt the Younger, the Prime Minister in 1801 when the first census was carried out, for us having to answer questions on everything from how we get to work to how many visitors will be staying in our house on Sunday night.

Or perhaps the finger should be pointed at Thomas Malthus, the scholar whose theory of population growth sparked fears of famine, disease and disaster and so paved the way for Britain’s grand head count.

This time we are being asked three times as many questions as 20 years ago in an exercise that will cost £481 million. The aim is to create a snapshot of how we are living on Sunday, March 27 2011.

And the truth is that this is fairly important stuff.

The data we provide will be used to decide how a trillion pounds of public funds will be spent over the next 10 years.

It will help plan public transport and work out if we can reach essential services such as shops and hospitals in reasonable time.

Someone will use it to gauge how many school places are needed in your area, whether fire engines are in the right places and how much money the local police force should get.

As such, it is pretty essential that we fill those annoying forms in.

That’s not to say, however, that everyone is taking the 2011 census entirely seriously.

In 2001, Jedi technically became a British religion after more than 400,000 people claimed to follow the fictional order made famous in the Star Wars films.

This time around another spoof religion looks set to appear on this year’s census thanks to 1998 cult comedy The Big Lebowski, in which Jeff Bridges played unemployed layabout The Dude.

Nearly 1,000 people have joined a Facebook group called ‘Dudeism for the 2011 Census’, with its creators explaining that it’s ‘an ancient philosophy that preaches non-preachiness and practices as little as possible.’

There are concerns too about giving away our personal details and worries as to who will be able to see them.

In fact there is a 100-year confidentiality clause on censuses which means we usually have to wait a century for the data to be released into the public domain.

There has never been a leak of census data and the Office for National Statistics has strict protocols which irritate researchers but protect confidentiality.

The flipside is the problem that the census results can often seem remote to us.

Though anonymised so individual households cannot be identified, the results of the 2001 survey are actually available to view online.

Type ‘neighbourhood statistics’ into Google, then click the top link and enter your post code or area.

You will be able to view records for your local authority, Middle Layer Super Output Area (the nearest 2,000 or so properties to you), Lower Layer Super Output Area (around 400 properties) and ward.

The results for Leeds make interesting reading, telling us plenty we probably didn’t know about our city.

Records from 2001 show that nearly 69 per cent of Leeds residents described themselves as Christians and over 93 per cent were born in the UK.

The most common household contained just one person, accounting for over 95,000 of the 301,000 households in the city.

Two-thirds of individuals who were of working age were in employment, with most travelling between three and six miles to get to work.

The 30 to 44 age group made up the largest chunk of the population at nearly a quarter and the average age of a Leeds resident was 36, slightly younger than for the country as a whole.

As useful as the census results are, however, after more than two centuries of them this year’s could be the last.

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, has told statisticians to find a quicker and cheaper method. His team have also been in talks with information services company Experian.

The firm uses data from sources such as banks, mobile phone contracts, the DVLA and even some high street stores to build a profile of every economically active citizen in Britain.

By adding facts from government databases it believes it would be able to compile a comprehensive list of the population which could then be updated every year.

Other options include copying France, where a rolling census builds up a picture of the country over five years. Germany carries out a one per cent ‘micro-census’ every year.

The Dutch dropped their census altogether because of complaints that it was intrusive. Instead all public sector data is frozen on a given date and the government works from that.

In the meantime, though, it’s back to the purple and white form sitting on our kitchen table that’s waiting to be filled in. Go on, you know you have to.

PIC: Simon Hulme

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