Bath and North East Somerset is one of a handful of areas bucking a national trend and seeing its population get younger on average.
The United Kingdom as a whole has, for a long time, had a population which is growing older on average. But in Bath and North East Somerset and some other rural areas, the opposite of this is happening.
Dr Patrick English, an associate director of political and social research at YouGov, said: “Against the national ageing tide, we’ve got this group of local authorities that are getting younger on average.”
He calls these “Benjamin Button local authorities” after the F Scott Fitzgerald story about a man born old and who grows younger over time.
He added: “It’s not that we are seeing an explosion of young people, but we are seeing young people not drop off in a lot of areas in the way that we are seeing them drop off quite heavily in places such as London, Manchester, or Sheffield.”
In Bath and North East Somerset there has been a 1.3% increase in the proportion of the population ages between 18 and 30, the second-highest increase in England after West Lancashire where the proportion of people in this age group went up by 1.8%. Although these numbers sound small, they can equate to thousands more young people living in these areas.
The curious case of these areas may be partially due to Covid but wider economic issues are a factor too.
Dr English said: “There is definitely a Covid effect and that is tied into when the census was conducted. It wasn’t in the middle of the pandemic. Most of the census was done as we were working towards ‘freedom day’.
“So a lot of stuff was open again. Most university students were back where they ‘should be,’ in terms of in their university towns having face-to-face lectures.
“But there definitely was an effect in that Covid pushed a lot of people out of small flats in the cities and back to their parents or into more suburb-y places with gardens.”
But Covid is not the only factor. He added: “I think the pricing thing is very, very real as well, and the housing shortage. The fact that there’s a lack of high-quality housing for the volume of young people who want to live and work in places like Bristol […] but can’t afford to — so they end up living in places like Bath or Weston-super-Mare and commute in. Or they stay at home; they move back in with their parents.”
Student populations add to these numbers too, particularly in Bath and North East Somerset where a local authority with a population of just over 190,000 contains the University of Bath which has almost 20,000 students.
Dr English said: “Universities definitely have a big impact — as do large further education colleges — in terms of attracting and keeping young people in the area.”
All of this could have an impact on how the constituencies seeing this demographic change vote in general elections.
Dr English said: “Let’s say you are Jacob Rees-Mogg and let’s say you do have one or two percent extra young voters in your constituency now than you did 10 years ago. That could mean three or four thousand extra votes which are heavily stacked against you because — to be honest — young people are more likely to be liberal, pro-immigration, have been impacted most by the cost of living crisis, and the economic recession — particularly millennials around 2008 to 2012 — and they do not have many reasons to vote Conservative right now. […]
“So for the Jacob Rees-Moggs of this world, or the Michael Goves or the Dominic Raabs et cetera, you are looking at this and you are thinking: ‘I’m sat on a demographic time-bomb. My constituents are getting younger; my vote is trending demographically away from me.”
With only figures for Bath and North East Somerset as a whole currently available, it is impossible to say how much of the growth in the young population has been in North East Somerset versus Bath. And with major boundary changes coming to North East Somerset, predicting the future of the seat is a challenge.
Dr English said: “It’s very difficult, for a number of reasons, to see what would happen with boundary changes. However, generally speaking, smaller constituencies tend to favour Labour and the LIb Dems and larger constituencies tend to favour the Conservatives.”
Under the proposed new boundaries for constituencies at general elections, North East Somerset will be almost directly cut in half.
The western half of the constituency, which includes Jacob Rees-Mogg’s village, would form a new constituency with Hanham. The eastern half, which includes the more Labour-leaning area around Midsomer Norton, would join Frome.
These changes do affect not Bath and North East Somerset’s boundaries as a local authority.
Dr English said: “If North East Somerset is getting divided in two and getting stuck with more urban constituencies, that probably will then make them tend a little bit towards Labour.
“Though, of course, we will have to see if and when those boundary changes come into place and what kind of voting behaviour we see because of those changes.”
John Wimperis, Local Democracy Reporter