When do we move, and how far?

By Frances Darlington-Pollock (University of Liverpool), Nik Lomax, and Paul Norman (University of Leeds)


Image credit: Jamie Sarner CC-BY 2.0

Many of us will move house multiple times. Some moves may be international, but many more will be within the boundaries of the country in which we currently live. The majority will be across short distances – within or between local neighbourhoods and towns. The reasons why we move house vary: we may (want to) move to a particular school catchment area or our housing requirements change. Some move seeking employment opportunities or for higher education. We may later move upon retirement, to release equity, downsize, or to provide or seek care. While it is highly likely that at some point in our lives we will be faced with the decision of when and where to move, the factors influencing that decision will vary. This variation in the circumstances surrounding our decision to move means that different groups of the population have different probabilities of moving, and the nature of that move (e.g. in terms of distance) varies.

In a socially, economically and ethnically diverse population, the possible factors or circumstances governing individual moves can vary greatly. The government’s racial disparity audit reveals the extent of this possible variation, recording stark differences across a range of factors including health, employment rates and access to social housing. Given these contrasting experiences, it is important to understand whether and how far different groups of the population are likely to move. This has implications for how we provide for the population. Resource-allocation, from schooling to healthcare provision, is complicated by the fact that the population is selectively mobile. This selectivity is recorded in the literature in terms of documenting the array of socio-economic and demographic factors associated with the likelihood of a move, and how these factors vary over the lifecourse.

However, less is known about whether factors influencing migration vary within an ethnically diverse population, some of whom were born overseas and immigrated to the UK, while others are second+ generation migrants born in the UK. This matters in the context of debates around community cohesion and integration. Are some groups more able to move, and perhaps less constrained than others? Are preferences for remaining in the same place or moving over short distances born out of attachment to an area or community, or the result of constrained circumstances? These sorts of questions are key to understanding the changing ethnic composition of our towns and communities, and become increasingly important given recent reports of the spatial variation to everyday perceptions of immigration and integration.

In England and Wales, the Census of population is an invaluable resource with which to examine patterns of ethnic internal migration. The richness of the data enables the study of the factors associated with the likelihood of moving house, how far people move, and whether these vary between ethnic groups by age, and within ethnic groups depending on where they were born. We can ask questions such as: Are some ethnic groups (e.g. White British) with particular characteristics (e.g. educational attainment, social class) more or less likely than another ethnic group to move shorter distances? Does this pattern vary by age, or between UK-born and foreign-born groups?

Key to our analytical strategy was differentiating between age groups, and by country of birth. This entailed sub-setting our sample from the 2011 Census into different age groups and by UK-born or foreign-born status. Sub-setting the data and running a series of models allows us to estimate the probability of a move over a particular distance for different groups. We can examine whether the relationship between moving house for an individual of a given ethnic group born in the UK varies to that of an individual of the same ethnic group either of a different age or born overseas. Within these models, we control for a broad array of factors known to influence the probability of moving.

Our results contrast with previous research. It has been suggested that minority ethnic groups are more mobile than the White British population, but that these differences are to some extent explained by different socio-economic profiles. In other words, higher rates of migration in a particular ethnic group are explained by a concentration of factors known to be associated with a higher likelihood of migrating (e.g. higher levels of educational attainment, or being single). Controlling for these factors in the model should then reduce differences between ethnic groups in the likelihood of moving house. This is not the case, and it is particularly apparent when sub-setting the population by age and by country of birth. There are also differences within and between ethnic groups in terms of the distance moved. This is important as we must ask why some groups are more or less likely to move across particular distances.

We also made use of a new question introduced in the 2011 Census asking foreign-born individuals when they arrived in the UK. For our foreign-born sample, we ran an additional set of models for each age group including a variable controlling for year of arrival. As the population was subset by age, we essentially ‘fixed’ age which helps to separate the effect of time spent in the UK from increasing age—each may differently influence the likelihood of moving house. Time spent in the UK explained more of the differences between ethnic groups in the probability of moving house than the socioeconomic and demographic factors we controlled for in our models.

There is a need to integrate discussions of international and internal migration given the complexity of the dynamics shaping differences in ethnic internal migration. More research into the nature of different migration events might reveal whether the remaining unexplained differences between ethnic groups reflect barriers to integration, a lack of rootedness in the local community, or a preference for mobility either as an individual or as a household.

About the authors: Frances Darlington-Pollock is a Lecturer in Population Geography at the University of Liverpool. Nik Lomax is a University Academic Fellow and Paul Norman is a Lecturer in Human Geography, both at the University of Leeds.

Darlington‐Pollock F, Lomax N, Norman P. Ethnic internal migration: The importance of age and migrant statusGeogr J2018;00:1–14. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12286 (open access)


The Guardian. (2017). Audit lays bare racial disparities in UK schools, courts and workplaces. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/oct/09/audit-lays-bare-racial-disparities-in-uk-schools-courts-and-workplaces

The Independent. (2018). We’ve just completed the largest ever survey into British attitudes to immigration – and this is what we found. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/uk-immigration-british-people-racism-xenophobia-multiculturalism-a8540951.html

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