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London’s bursting. Or at least that is how it seems. In the first week of February the population of the UK capital breached 8.6m, the peak set in 1939. The milestone was passed amid reports of unscrupulous landlords exploiting a shortage of affordable homes by renting out “beds in sheds” and underground trains taking the strain of 1.26bn journeys a year — almost 20 per cent more than four years ago.

And yet a new study by Savills reveals that this population growth is spread far from uniformly across the city. The analysis of census data from 1801 to 2011 reveals that some inner-London boroughs remain well below their population peaks, while outer-London communities have generally recovered and exceeded their numbers or experienced no significant decline at all.

“We have looked at the patterns of population growth, decline and renaissance in each of London’s 33 boroughs and divided them into seven distinct groups which have each experienced some very different population phenomena,” says Yolande Barnes, world research director at Savills. The varied effects of history, geography and local policy, she argues, mean that London’s problems — and triumphs — differ across the capital.

Take what Barnes terms the “historic inner-London boroughs” — Islington, Westminster, Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Southwark and the City. Although London’s total population peaked ahead of the second world war, the number of inhabitants in the most established areas has been declining since 1901. Westminster numbers began falling in 1871, while the City of London’s populace dropped from 128,000 in 1851 to 7,375 in 2011. Even Camden, the most recovered of this group with 220,338 inhabitants in 2011, retains only about 60 per cent of its 1901 peak population.

Jerry White, visiting professor of London history at Birkbeck, University of London, blames changing land use prompted by mid-19th century industrialisation. “These boroughs lost population because of the switch from residential to commercial,” he says.

Kensington and Chelsea stands out among the core — in 2011 its 158,649 inhabitants represented a 37 per cent fall from a 1901 high, compared with an average 56 per cent decline across the “historic” boroughs. “To my mind it’s market driven,” says White. “[The area] has always retained an extraordinary cachet as a residential area.”

Recipients of this migration from the historical centre included, at first, “newer” inner-London boroughs such as Lambeth and Wandsworth, which grew until 1931. Other deserters went further. Underground rail development in the early 20th century helped create “Metroland”. Londoners could now benefit from more spacious accommodation in the suburbs and a manageable commute into town.

A 1930s building boom produced more than 500,000 homes “almost entirely confined to outer London”, reports the Greater London Authority. “People actively sought out the suburban lifestyle,” says Barnes. All 20 outer boroughs were expanding until the outbreak of the second world war; and though the city centre, badly damaged by enemy bombs, continued to suffer depopulation come peacetime, some outer boroughs enjoyed almost uninterrupted postwar growth.

Populations in outlying Bexley and Hillingdon, for example, grew rapidly immediately after the war, the latter’s increasing by 32 per cent between 1939 and 1951. By 2011 their populations, at 231,997 and 273,936 respectively, were both greater than ever. Meanwhile, contraction was similarly limited in the most affluent outlying areas, including Harrow and Richmond, dubbed “the lush gardens” by Savills. By 2011 the populations there had equalled their 1950s peaks.

For Ian Gordon, a professor at the London School of Economics, land-use economics help explain the vicissitudes of the capital’s population. “It is to do with people becoming more affluent,” he says. “People who’ve got more income want more space and not more accessibility [to central areas]. They get more concerned about the price of space because, if they are prepared to live further out, they can get a lot more space for their money.”

While the fringes remained attractive, the 1950s dealt a further blow to those boroughs already in decline with deindustrialisation. “[Postwar] inner-London was so bashed about that it became a place where industrial jobs were no longer sustainable, whether they were bombed out or the planners planned them out,” says White.

Compounding this, he says, their inability to accommodate increasingly large container ships saw the eastern city docks close. East London boroughs such as Barking and Dagenham lost residents to “socio-economic decline as fewer jobs were replaced by service-industry roles,” says Barnes.

Post-industrial regeneration would not necessarily revive such waning communities, says Gordon. “When [regeneration] succeeds in making an area nicer . . . more working-class people get displaced than middle-class people arrive to occupy the spaces,” he says, citing gentrified Islington, still about 230,000 short of its 436,000 peak.

This comes despite the turning point of 1991, when the census recorded virtually citywide population growth. Financial deregulation from the mid-1980s is widely credited for the turnround. “That’s the point at which London starts attracting a much bigger global catchment,” says Barnes.

Even inner boroughs have enjoyed uninterrupted growth ever since. Their appeal could relate in part to the rise in young adults moving to London (the 2011 Census recorded 79 per cent of recent international immigrants were aged 16 to 34). “Single people and graduates both have a taste for accessibility and, single people especially, less of a taste for space,” says Gordon.

Ultimately, though, changing lifestyles and expectations, such as a decline in multifamily living, are likely to limit inner-London’s growth. According to the GLA, more than 25 per cent of the capital’s homes in 1931 were overcrowded (defined as homes with more inhabitants than rooms) compared with 8 per cent in 2013.

Barnes acknowledges that undesirable living conditions endured when much of inner-London’s population peaked. Still, she adds, “it’s probably possible to accommodate [far more people in inner-London at present] with a little intelligent planning”.

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