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Everything you need to know about Census 2021

Every 10 years the census provides a snapshot of our society, revealing who lives here and how life around us is changing.

From population figures, to marriages, ethnic diversity and faith, it is the only way to get a detailed idea of what makes up Britain in 2021.

Census Day 2021 is Sunday, March 21
Census Day 2021 is Sunday, March 21

And with Census Day 2021 fast approaching on Sunday, March 21, the government is urging people to make sure they take 10 minutes to play their part in the mammoth survey.

Below you’ll find everything you need to know about the census, and some idea of what it could tell us about Kent in 2021.

Why is it important?

The census provides government and local authorities with information they can use to more effectively decide things like where housing needs to be built, or which areas need more health service support.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said in 2018 that previous censuses have been shown to deliver many times their cost in indirect benefits, with a return on investment shown to be £5 for every £1 spent.

The Census 2021 online portal
The Census 2021 online portal

It can also be used to develop new policies in line with how people are living their lives.

For example, if data shows a clear increase - or decrease - in a specific occupation, government could use the information to create new training initiatives or invest in a specific sector.

It’s not just a benefit to public service planning either - businesses can use the population information to decide where to open new stores, or charities could use it as evidence for a funding application.

And for those looking to unearth their family tree, census records can help trace ancestral links going back more than 200 years.

The first census was conducted in 1801, and it is thought by some to have been an elaborate way of determining how many men were fit enough to fight in the Napoleonic Wars.

The 1850 census return for Earl Street in Maidstone
The 1850 census return for Earl Street in Maidstone

Others have said it was so the government could work out how many mouths needed feeding.

A census has been taken in England and Wales, and separately for Scotland, every decade since 1801, with the exception of 1941 when Britain was busy with the war effort.

Going digital

With the majority of us using some kind of electronic device on a daily basis, 2021 marks the maiden year for the census going online-first.

It is hoped this will mean more people than ever will be able to access and complete the questionnaire with ease - no more trips to your local postbox.

2021's census is the first to be carried out online
2021's census is the first to be carried out online

To access the questionnaire online you will need a code which is sent to you either by post or text. You can then log in and take part.

But not everyone has access to an online device, leading to concerns that those who are digitally excluded could be at risk of being handed a £1,000 fine through no fault of their own.

To combat the issue, Social Enterprise Kent has launched support centres across the county for people who have difficulty operating a PC, to those with a language barrier or no reliable access to an electronic device at home.

The community interest company is offering free appointments at Covid-safe support centres in Thanet, Canterbury, Folkestone, Hythe and Maidstone.

Will Sanderson, lead census advisor for the organisation, said: “Everything’s moving to IT but they’re leaving a lot of people behind, so we’re just trying to merge that gap and bring people forward into that role.”

Will Sanderson is the lead census advisor for Social Enterprise Kent CIC
Will Sanderson is the lead census advisor for Social Enterprise Kent CIC

Speaking to KentOnline, he also said he believes Census Day 2021 could have been postponed to make it easier for people to get face-to-face help filling out their questionnaire from friends and family.

He said: “I think they could have delayed it maybe six months or so.

“If someone needs support there isn’t much out there, but thankfully we’ve been able to open these centres so we can provide that support.”

For more information on getting a family member help filling out their form, you can contact Social Enterprise Kent here.

Should I be worried about my personal information being collected?

ONS have said there is no need to worry about the security of your personal data
ONS have said there is no need to worry about the security of your personal data

No, you shouldn’t.

According to the ONS, there is a “strict security regime” that is there to protect the personal information that is part of your questionnaire, which is protected by law anyway.

The personal information would be a crime to share, and cannot be made available to government departments dealing with things like residency applications, taxes or benefit claims.

And any information you provide which is published as part of the census figures keeps you entirely anonymous.

All in all it sounds a lot more secure than in 1841, when the results for the Welsh town of Wrexham went missing - bizarrely they eventually turned up in a bookshop.

Does it have to be filled out on Sunday?

The census is always based on a single day as the government believes it is the most accurate way to measure the data to paint a picture of UK society.

But that does not mean you should start worrying if you cannot fill it in on the day.

Many people across Kent will have already received their letter in the post to complete the survey, with instructions explaining you can complete it before Census Day.

And if you’re unable to access the questionnaire on Sunday, you can still complete it in the days after - providing you get around to it as soon as you can. The absolute latest date to complete your census form is Tuesday, May 4.

Census Day is on Sunday, but you have until early May to complete the form
Census Day is on Sunday, but you have until early May to complete the form

During the last census, one area of the county was far worse than the rest for not getting their questionnaires completed.

Medway residents failed to return their forms more than anywhere else in Kent, leading to scores of census collectors calling on doorsteps encouraging them to complete it - sometimes three times a week.

A KentOnline reporter was told by one census source that while many people had been apologetic and had not realised they could get a criminal record if they did not comply, others gave verbal abuse when challenged.

Why has one of this year's new questions proved controversial?

In addition to the usual questions, the 2021 survey will also ask about sexual orientation, gender identity and whether you have served in the armed forces.

The questionnaire has three new questions this time around
The questionnaire has three new questions this time around

But the question shake up has resulted in controversy, with campaign group Fair Play for Women arguing the guidance accompanying one of the new questions is “unlawful”.

The question “What is your sex?” on the survey is accompanied by guidance to help people with their response.

The guidance reads: “If you are considering how to answer, use the sex recorded on one of your legal documents such as a birth certificate, gender recognition certificate, or passport.

“If it is different, you can then record your gender identity.

“If you are aged 16 years or over, there is a later voluntary question on gender identity.

“This asks if the gender you identify with is different from your sex registered at birth.”

Fair Play for Women argued this unlawfully allowed "self-identification" as male or female.

The guidance said people can use the sex listed on their passport, which can be changed without a legal process.

They argued this could potentially have the effect of "distorting" the data gathered in the census.

A High Court judge ruled last week in favour of the campaign group, and ordered the guidance to be changed.

The High Court ruled that the guidance must be changed
The High Court ruled that the guidance must be changed

It’s a decision which has been described by organisation Inclusive Employers as a “devastating blow to trans inclusion” and are also warning it is “heightening levels of fear, anger and exclusion.”


The original 1801 census recorded approximately nine million people in the country - in 2011 that had ballooned to a whopping 63.2 million.

Of that figure, 1.7 million people were recorded to be living in Kent (or 1,727,800 to be exact).

The number was a 9% increase from the 2001 Census, which recorded 1,580,000 people in the county.

Kent's population since 1971 census
Kent's population since 1971 census

Ashford had by far the largest population surge, with 15,000 new residents since the 2001 census - making the total number of inhabitants 118,000, a rise of 14.6%.

So what are the chances of the census result showing another population increase in Kent?

Unsurprisingly, pretty likely.

In January ONS data showed the UK population sitting at 66.8 million in mid-2019, a 5.7% increase from the 2011 census results.

But this is lower than the increase seen between 2001 and 2011, which might suggest our population growth has relaxed in the past decade.

Borough breakdown of Kent's estimated borough by borough population
Borough breakdown of Kent's estimated borough by borough population

Growth in the year mid-2018 to mid-2019 was slower than in any year since mid-2004.

One thing which remained unchanged between 2011 and 2011 was that the South East was still the region in England and Wales with the largest population, growing 8% between censuses.

Keeping the faith

One of the quirkier aspects of census results in the past two decades has been the number of people listing themselves as Jedi Knights.

In 2011 1,068 Medway residents identified as following the religion from science fiction juggernaut Star Wars.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Picture: Lucasfilm 2015
Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Picture: Lucasfilm 2015

It followed a grassroots campaign that began in 2001 as a way of picking fun at the faith section of the census.

And it wasn’t just limited to Britain either - countries across the world including Australia, Canada, Turkey and Czech Republic took part in the mock campaign.

Astonishingly more than 390,000 people in England and Wales registered as the sci-fi space wizards in 2001, making it the fourth-largest reported religion in the country.

But that number dropped to 176,632 in 2011.

Pete Benton, ONS director of population and public policy operations, even referenced the falling number of Jedi during a Reddit Q&A in October, saying, “The numbers speak for themselves I’m afraid…let’s hope the rebellion can do something about that.”

Saju Muthalaly during a Hate Crime Awareness Week event in 2019
Saju Muthalaly during a Hate Crime Awareness Week event in 2019

But it’s not just the fantasy faith that saw a decline - the number of Christians plummeted from 72% of residents in 2001 to 57.8% in 2011.

And the number of people listing themselves as “no religion” almost doubled, from 16.7% of residents to 29.9%.

So, will the latest census results show an even sharper drop in Kent residents practising religions?

Not according to Saju Muthalaly, vicar of St Mark’s Church in Gillingham.

He said: “Christianity has grown quite extraordinarily in the global south, and therefore the Nigerians and the Ghanaians and the Indians and the Pakistanis and the people from Latin America are bringing their faith into the churches and bringing a sense of vibrancy into the life of our church.

Canterbury Cathedral. Picture: Paul Amos
Canterbury Cathedral. Picture: Paul Amos

“If you look at Medway there is a real diverse expression of church, and that is tremendously positive from a Christian point of view.”

Saju is among the many faith leaders across Medway who have been practising inter-faith and encouraging people of all religions - and none - to come together and collaborate in spite of their differences.

So even if that number of registered Christians does decline with the 2021 Census, according to the vicar it has no bearing on the importance of the church in our local communities.

He added: “Peace building has been very important in our locality - that sense of looking out for people irrespective of their faith convictions, or even people who don’t have faith.

“We don’t exist just for ourselves, we exist for every person.”

Saju Muthalaly in conversation with imam Safeer Khan and Dalia Halpern in 2019
Saju Muthalaly in conversation with imam Safeer Khan and Dalia Halpern in 2019

Other faiths are likely to see a considerable rise in Kent.

At the last census in 2011, there were more than 10,000 followers of the Sikh faith across the county but the latest estimates suggest that figure has been surpassed in one town alone.

More than 15,000 Sikhs are believed to be living in Gravesend and the surrounding suburbs, making up more than 15% of the total local population.

The Gravesend Gurdwara - one of the largest temples in Europe - celebrated its tenth anniversary last year and has become a landmark that tens of thousands of Sikhs flock to.


The population of Kent is getting more diverse with every passing decade
The population of Kent is getting more diverse with every passing decade

Kent became a far more diverse place between 2001 and 2011, with people from all over the world welcomed into our communities.

But the largest ethnic group in Kent was still white, with 93.7% of residents belong to this ethnic group and the remaining 6.3% of residents are from a Black Minority Ethnic (BME) group.

Medway was 92.2% white British at the turn of the century, and by 2011 that figure had dropped to 85.5%.

One of the biggest influxes in the Medway Towns came from Poland after the nation joined the EU in 2004. In 2001 just 123 Polish people lived in Medway - in 2011 it was 1,731.

Meanwhile, in 2001 there were just 112 people living in Maidstone who described their ethnicity as African, which increased to 3,030 by 2011.

Builders at work on new homes in Kent
Builders at work on new homes in Kent

These 2011 figures actually helped authorities work out where in Kent needed a greater number of homes.

Changes in ethnic diversity as revealed by the census data had Gravesham Council considering a growth in the number of dwellings built in the area.

A council report from 2014 said: “The differing lifestyle choices among ethnic groups mean that the average household size amongst these groups varies.

“Applying the average household size for a specific ethnic group to the estimated population in 2028 provides an indicative housing need of 4,000 dwellings.”

With a global population growth rate of 1.5% year on year and the continuing systems of migration and globalization, it is likely the Census 2021 will reveal an even more diverse Kent that a decade ago.

But it might be worth making yourself comfortable if you're already itching to find out - we won't see the first results of the survey for another year yet, with the full data unlikely to appear before March 2023.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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