Why filling in the census improves your life

Anthony Browne
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SO, how old are you? Have you ever been married? Who do you live with? Do you have a mortgage? How many bedrooms do you have? What religion are you?

Yes, it might feel like Big Brother plopped on our doormats this week.

The 2011 census asks questions that probably many of us would find intrusive coming from friends – but it is the government asking.

Not answering is not allowed – you get fined if you don’t. But even ignoring the fear of a fine, there are plenty of reasons to fill out the form. The census tells us intriguing things like the fact that London school children speak a total of 233 languages.

But that is just the visible tip of the iceberg. The census has a wide range of uses, and filling it out will, quite literally, be good for you, your community – and the economy.

At the last census, in 2001, the 14 areas of the UK with the lowest response were all in the capital. The national average response was 94 per cent, while it was 85 per cent across London, and just 64 per cent in affluent Kensington and Chelsea. It is London residents who lose out. Over a quarter of public spending in London - £19.3bn – is dependent on population figures. Your child’s school, your local GP surgery or the bus or tube you travel to work on benefits from you completing the form. It is estimated that one uncompleted form reduces public spending by £600.

A poor census response also affects commercial services. The main users of the census are not government, but companies working out where to allocate billions of pounds of investments around the country. They use detailed analysis of how many people live how far from a location; and what the socio-economic profile of those people are.

Barclays, Boots, Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Whitbread and many other major companies use census data to inform decisions ranging from where to put a new outlet, which branches to close and which products to offer. This applies to big outlets like supermarkets, as well as smaller ones like convenience stores and pubs. Even golf course entrepreneurs use the census to work out where to lay down a new fairway. Your form could help prevent the closure of your Post Office branch.

So, don’t let a few minutes dithering lead to a decade of underinvestment. Get out your pen!

Anthony Browne is an adviser to the Mayor of London