'Britain's first White minority city': exploding the myth
"The indigenous population is due to be a minority in Leicester, London and Birmingham by the time of the 2011 Census."
That's what one contributor wrote in no less authoritative a forum than Wikipedia four years ago. And no wonder. This assertion has become almost commonplace, repeated so many times in such a wide range of more or less infuential reports and 'opinion' columns that it is increasingly seen as a safe assumption, little more than a statement of the obvious. Axiomatic.
There's just one problem. It's not true.
A report commissioned by Birmingham City Council from the Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research (CCSR)at the University of Manchester forecasts that the city's White population will not fall below 50% of the total for another 15 years.
But what IS changing is the proportion of children aged under 16 who are of black and ethnic minorities. The CCSR say this figure has probably reached 50% already and is set to rise to about 64% by 2026. The demography of Birmingham means it can claim to be Europe's youngest city.
Could this be the last ever Census?
We shall not have long to wait for at least some of the numbers to be confirmed. In this year of the Census, and 27 March is the day when 25m households across England and Wales will be required by law to return their forms accounting for exactly who lives there, with answers to a range of questions including their ages, education and, not least, their ethnicity. The results will be announced a year later.
Of course the outcome will be carefully distilled by research teams like the CCSR. But it will be of much more than mere academic interest: (have you noticed that when we journalists say something is 'of purely academic interest', what we mean is it's nigh-on irrelevant'? While academics reserve the word 'journalistic' for only the most deeply-flawed undergraduate essays).
The most important point about the Census is that it automatically becomes an essential element in the spending calculations of successive governments: if, for example, the findings confirm the Midlands' expected decline in educational attainment and skills standards since the last census in 2001, then spending plans could be 'weighted' accordingly.
By now you will have realised this involves some very serious politics. Quite apart from the highly-charged debates over immigration, multiculturalism and ethnic diversity, there are fundamental, practical challenges for central and local government alike.
Our Politics Show reporter Ben Godfrey is talking this week to members of Birmingham's Pakistani community, which is expected to double in size over the next 20 years. He is also visiting a school in one of the city's most ethnically-diverse communities and going out and about with one of the people who'll be kept busy on 27 March making sure the returns are as accurate and comprehensive as the law requires them to be.
Joining me live in the studio will be Paul Uppal, the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, himself a member of the sikh community; and Khalid Mahmood, the Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, who became the Midlands' first muslim MP when he entered Partliament ten years ago.
Let us know what you make of all this: email email@example.com and join us at 12 o'clock this coming Sunday (23 January 2011) on BBC One.
For all the importance atatched to the Census, the signs are that this year's could be the last.
After 200 years of official population measurement, the Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude says it's become 'expensive and inaccurate'. The Government, we're told, is examining cheaper ways of crunching our numbers more often, using existing public and private databases including credit reference agencies.
But my guess is this isn't the last word on the subject...