WatPop: understanding seasonal population change

Lead Research Organisation: Plymouth University
Department Name: Sch of Geog Earth & Environ Sciences


Population fluctuations driven by tourism are not captured by traditional population statistics, yet in some localities tourism is responsible for huge population fluctuations during the peak summer tourist season. Tourists staying within camping and caravanning sites, hotels/B&Bs/guesthouses or self-catering accommodation (e.g. rental cottages) are poorly captured within official statistics at the small area (sub-district) level. This is especially true within the counties of Cornwall and Devon where approx. 1 in 20 dwellings represent self-catering tourist accommodation. Tourist accommodation such as self-catering cottages (including those rented through growing peer-to-peer networks such as AirBnB) and second homes are predominantly drawn from the housing stock and very little is known about their location or occupancy patterns. Similarly, dwellings predominantly associated with tourism, such as static caravans, may be used as a permanent residential dwelling with year round occupancy. These properties and their seasonal occupancy patterns present considerable challenges for local population enumeration, and place substantial demands on infrastructure and local service provision (e.g. retail, health, emergency response). These impacts are highly localised and there is a clear requirement to understand the highly seasonal dwelling level occupancy patterns associated with the growing tourist accommodation sector.

The research benefits from access to water supply data provided by project partner South West Water (SWW). SWW are the statutory water authority for south west England. Equivalent data are routinely collected by all statutory water authorities and, as non-sensitive and non-personally identifiable operational data, these data could have considerable potential as indicators of small-area or dwelling level population fluctuations driven by tourism. The proposed research aims to assess the feasibility of using water supply data to reveal small area seasonal population fluctuations driven by tourism.

Specifically the research aims to:
1. Infer the seasonal and spatial distribution of small-area tourist-driven population fluctuations using area-based measures of water supply.
2. Assess the feasibility of identifying second homes/holiday homes and self-catering rental properties and their periods of occupancy/vacancy from dwelling level smart meter derived water supply records.

In addressing these aims a comprehensive methodology is proposed, drawing on the investigators experience in working with similar commercial data from the electricity sector, and in estimating spatiotemporal components of small-area population fluctuations.

The proposed research has considerable potential to unlock the value of novel transactional data derived from a commercial sector partner. The ability to link non-sensitive and routinely collected indicators of water supply to underlying population fluctuations could offer considerable benefits to a range of end users. These include the academic community and the Office for National Statistics (ONS). ONS have an ongoing requirement to identify non-residential dwellings to assist with population enumeration and the production of population statistics.

As data provider, SWW could also realise considerable benefits from this study, including enhanced understanding of the impact of tourist-driven population fluctuations on the water supply side (provision of potable drinking water) and on the pressures placed on capacity-constrained waste water treatment systems. Our analysis will also add substantial value to a supply-side dataset which offers uniform coverage and oversight from a single authority, linking these data to existing datasets in a way that unlocks their potential in statistical and academic research. The 'Pathways to Impact' outlines a comprehensive strategy to ensure that these benefits are realised.

Planned Impact

Human populations are spatially concentrated from large urban areas to smaller rural settlements. There is an enormous variation at the local level in the number of people who may be present at a particular location for any given time. Most people can relate to the experience of these changes in population cycles from the seasonal uplift as associated increased footfall and visitor traffic at tourist resorts, to changes in commuter journey duration between school term time and holidays. Having a reliable grasp of the temporal variation in population change has extremely high societal importance for our everyday lives, businesses, service providers, emergency services and academic researchers.

This summary will explain some of the identified impact beneficiaries from this programme of proposed research and how they will benefit. At a broad level these are identified as direct beneficiaries who include: (1) the water industry and regulators as well as (2) academic researchers. It also includes those who may benefit indirectly, with the potential to facilitate further direct engagement, which include (3) local authorities (LA) and service providers and (4) the public and service users.

(1) The water industry and regulators:
The new partnership for this research will unlock access to a different network within the wider water industry. By demonstrating the ability to detect seasonal population driven supply pressures there is clear potential for industry professionals to better understand their service provision and customer portfolio. These impacts extend beyond the direct project focus on area-based and household level water supply, with SWW citing considerable interest in using project insights to forecast seasonal peaks in waste water volumes associated with tourist populations. This may enable them to better manage limited waste water treatment capacity in some tourist resorts. This impact goal will be facilitated with regular stakeholder progress meetings.

(2) Academic researchers and national statistical organisations:
The UK is home to some of the world's leading quantitative social science and population analytics research. There is already a well-established and identified need for robust population estimates in impactful policy relevant research. This programme aims to deliver conceptual impact by evaluating the potential for these novel data to contribute to small area seasonal population estimation. This will inform current national and international policy debates (e.g. Beyond the Census, post-Brexit regional funding allocation and reform) and further research. Such local level decisions are often underpinned by small area population estimates that do not take into account seasonal change. Impact will be facilitated by the dissemination of findings in peer reviewed journals and exemplified though a methodological working paper in conjunction with the Office for National Statistics.

(3) LAs and service providers:
Instrumental impact can be achieved though the planned engagement with LAs who will benefit from this programme of research though early uptake of an enhanced, locally relevant, seasonally varying population dataset. This will potentially help address concerns around local issues such as traffic, air quality, planning policy and revenue protection (through a better understating of the second home property market which this project will address).

(4) Public and service users:
The public comprises a diverse group who may be indirectly impacted by population research as bystanders or hold a direct vested interest as service users, local business owners or residents in areas that experience highly seasonal population change. There is an indirect benefit for service users or businesses who have the ability to adapt to reliable, spatially accurate, estimates of seasonal magnitudinal population change. Impact will cascaded though key identified stakeholders in (1) and (3) above.


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Description Impacts are starting to develop and be nurtured from this project which is still ongoing. To date a draft provisional REF Impact Case study is being developed. Methodological outputs have been used by the Office for National Statistics to help inform debates on dynamic population estimate techniques.
First Year Of Impact 2023
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description University SciTech Showcase 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact 600 studnets and members of the public attended this research show case on campus at the University of Plymouth. This generated discussion and questions on the use and application of water meter data within research as well as how it is used.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2023
URL https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/study/outreach/the-science-and-engineering-showcase