What’s the summer population of Cornwall?

As you’re stuck in a traffic jam this summer ponder a puzzle. What exactly is the population of Cornwall in August? It’s surprisingly difficult to find a simple answer to this question.

The latest guess (by the ONS) is that Cornwall’s resident population in 2014 was 545,000. This obviously rises in summer. But by how many? While some are content to say it ‘rises massively‘ and leave it at that, others are quick to quantify. Kerry Smith, the editor of British Airways High Life tweeted in 2014 that the population of Cornwall increases from 250,000 in winter to 7 million in summer. As she was wrong on the winter population by a factor of two, the figure for the summer population is also likely to be hopelessly inaccurate.

smith tweetPerhaps she got her information from the same place as the Daily Telegraph. In 2011 that paper told us with a straight face that the ‘latest figures’ (although it didn’t divulge where those could be found) meant that Cornwall’s population swells ‘to more than 5 million‘. As the Telegraph was bent on frightening its readers with the prospects of a tourist tax (some chance), it’s likely they were hyping up the possible effects.

We might start to get a little suspicious of these figures when we read the Plymouth Herald reporting earlier this year that the population of Cornwall AND Devon rises more than five-fold in summer (from 1.5 million – near enough correct – to 8 million). Yet the police were quoted saying the rise in emergency calls amount to just 35% in summer.

Enjoying the Cornish countryside

Enjoying the Cornish countryside

These claims for the size of the summer population are nonsense. If they were, we wouldn’t be able to get anywhere on the roads. In fact, according to Visit Britain, the number of holiday trips to Cornwall over a whole year equates to just under 3 million. It’s actually fallen from a peak of 3.1 million in 2009-11 to 2.8 million over the past three years. We can add to that another million or so trips made to friends and relatives, to second homes and for business reasons, although these elements are not broken down.

This amounts to 3-4 million trips a year. Around 15% of those trips are compressed into the month of August, which suggests around 450,000 to 600,000 trips will have been made to Cornwall this month. This would certainly explain the state of the roads without recourse to ridiculously inflated population estimates of 5-7 million.

So if everyone stayed for a whole month the population would rise by around half a million. But they don’t. Visit Cornwall claims that the average stay is 8.5 nights in summer. Even if we assume everyone stays for a fortnight that means an extra 225-300,000 people at any one time in August, an awful lot lower than some of the apocalyptic figures floating around. Put it another way, the summer population grows by around 40 to 55%.

It is possible this is an underestimate. Cornwall Council’s ‘demographic evidence base’ of 2011 told us that the population of Newquay grows ten-fold in summer. That’s around 200,000. If this is true, it only leaves 100,000 visitors for the rest of Cornwall, which seems unlikely. But the source for Cornwall Council’s claim, as with so many tourism-related statistics, is opaque, to say the least.

Balancing that, some usual residents will be away on holiday themselves in other places, so the net rise of population will be less than is implied by these gross figures.

Getting away from it all? In summer, Cornwall's population density, is higher, in many cases far higher, than most of rural England and Wales.

Getting away from it all? In summer, Cornwall’s population density, is higher, in many cases far higher, than most of rural England and Wales.

What are we left with? A summer population of between 770,000 and 850,000 is my best guess. And what are the implications? First, we don’t need to imagine huge 5–7 million jumps in population to explain the congestion and chaos we see everyday around us. The actual population growth caused by tourism is far more modest. Second, the real unsustainable problem is not so much tourist numbers, which are stagnating, but steady in-migration and population growth. If the current rate of permanent population growth in Cornwall continues on its present path the resident population alone will reach the current August population in 60 years time. By the 2070s January will be like August now. And August will be like … ????

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