Tiger economy rises in the East

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THE AFFLUENT neighbourhoods of the South will continue to expand rapidly in the next two decades, while populations fall in the old industrial cities of the North, according to government forecasts released yesterday.

Areas of booming hi-tech industry, such as Cambridge, and retirement locations, such as Dorset, will have large population increases. London is expecting a population rise of 9 per cent.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) are based on birth and death rates and trends in migration between regions. It is predicted the population of England will grow from 49.1 million in 1996 to 52.5 million in 2021.

The Fen Country will have the biggest rise in people - lured by industries set in peaceful countryside with picturesque, low-crime towns. Because most will be young, they are likely to settle and produce families, further increasing the population. The figures show the population of Cambridgeshire will rise by nearly a quarter by the year 2021, to 678,600. Merseyside is expected to lose a tenth of its population, with bigger falls in St Helens, Knowsley and Wirral.

"I don't know how we're going to fit them all into Cambridge," said Richard Potter, principal research officer for Cambridgeshire County Council. "We are already right up to the boundaries and it's not physically possible to fit any more in." He said the general economic strength of the area and increases in student numbers had pushed up the population up and it would take considerable planning to house such a large population growth.

However, a spokesman for Liverpool City Council said he felt the ONS had overestimated the city's loss of population. "We have talked to the ONS about this," he said. "We did lose population because of the growth of new towns and job losses in the Eighties. But we have a lot of initiatives now."

Other old industrial heartlands of the North, such as Middlesbrough, will see their numbers fall by 9 per cent; the Newcastle area 4.4 per cent; and Manchester 2 per cent. In Yorkshire, Doncaster, Rother-ham and Wakefield are also likely to see population decline.

However Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield in the Midlands are all expecting increases of between 3 and 6 per cent. "There will be more than half a million people living in Bradford by the year 2021," said a spokesman for the ONS.

The forecasts will give further ammunition to campaigners against Whitehall attempts to force the building of four million homes over the next 20 years. The planners want 22,400 new homes in Co Durham, where the population is expected to fall by more than 2 per cent. They also want 69,000 homes in Nottinghamshire - where population is set to grow by well under 1 per cent - and nearly 52,000 in Staffordshire, which has a predicted rise in population of just 1.1 per cent.

The Department of the Environment says its predictions for new homes take into account the effects of divorce and family breakdown, which increase the need for housing for single people and sole-parent families.

"Historically, household projections have invariably underestimated the growth," said a spokesman for the department. "We will continue to monitor the projections."