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By Philippe Legrain 4 COMMENTS

One of immigration critics’ favourite arguments is that Britain is full up. Even if immigrants might have something to contribute to this country, they argue, we simply can’t house a larger population.

The argument is superficially attractive to anyone who is often stuck in traffic or on a crowded train. Yet it is flawed in all sorts of ways.

For a start, there are more Britons living abroad than foreigners living in Britain, so the UK population is now lower, not higher, because of net migration.

The strains on public infrastructure have more to do with decades of underinvestment than excess population. The Netherlands is more densely populated than the UK yet its trains are not over-crowded; Paris is more densely populated than London yet its Metro is less cramped than our Tube.

While the Office of National Statistics recently projected, by extrapolating recent trends decades forward, a 10 million increase in the UK population by 2031, there is no reason why this should turn out to be true. The ONS projection is simply a possible scenario, not a forecast, let alone a certainty.

There is good reason to think that the recent rate of population growth will not be sustained. The increase in the population in recent years is largely due to the one-off opening of our borders to Poland and the other new EU member states – and it appears to be mostly temporary. Many Poles are, in effect, international commuters who split their lives between Britain and Poland – and with the Polish economy looking perkier while Britain’s slows and the falling pound devalues wages here, many Poles are returning home.

Seemingly inexorable trends often reverse unpredictably. Lest we forget, as recently as the 1990s, many were worried about the prospect of a falling population. In 2001, as the oil price plunged below $10 a barrel, analysts did not envisage that it would soon soar to over $100 a barrel. So yes, the UK population may rise a lot over the next 25 years. Or it may rise a little. Or it may not rise at all.

Even if the population does rise, since when are other people such a bad thing? While population growth can cause strains on infrastructure and public services unless it is matched by correspondingly increased investment, it is not inherently undesirable. Many British people do not appear to think that living at close quarters is terrible: they opt to live in Glasgow rather than the Grampians, and flock from Lincolnshire to London.

Far from being a problem, more people can be a boon. Other people are what make our lives special; and the more people there are, the greater the chances of coming up with the new ideas that transform our lives for the better. Nobel laureate Douglass North, for instance, argues that the reason why innovation (and thus living standards) have soared over the past few hundred years is because there are more people able to contribute valuable new ideas.

If you are worried about the environmental impact of population growth, migration is not necessarily a problem. From a global perspective, migratory flows merely alter where people are located, not the total number. And it is difficult to argue, if you care about the planet, that Britain is less able to cope with extra people than, say, Bangladesh. Moreover, there is no reason why a rising population cannot go hand-in-hand with more eco-friendly living. For instance, while London’s population has risen considerably in recent years, traffic congestion has fallen thanks to the congestion charge.

It is a myth that Britain is full up. The Daily Mail used to argue likewise in the 1930s as a pretext for keeping out German Jews, yet somehow Britain has accommodated over 10 million extra people since. While parts of the country are more densely populated than others, there is still plenty of space: nearly three-quarters of Britain is agricultural land.

At the government’s target density, the 3 million new homes that it is planning to build – mostly to accommodate pent-up demand due to more people living apart rather than recent immigration – would take up a measly 0.31% of Britain’s total surface area – and even less if they are built on brownfield sites.

While some people are no doubt genuinely worried about the prospect of a rising population – and I am not imputing their motives for being so – others are using it as a convenient cover for their dislike of allowing in foreigners. After all, we don’t hear the Conservatives proposing a one-child policy to keep the population down, do we?

Posted 04 Apr 2008 in Blog
  1. Stan Ogden says:

    “Phil said: One of immigration critics’ favourite arguments is that Britain is full up. Even if immigrants might have something to contribute to this country, they argue, we simply can’t house a larger population.”
    Well it’s a vision thing Phil, innit? It probably sounds irredeemably old-dufferish, but those of us who don’t earn our living by jetting around the world lecturing other people about who they should be letting into their country would, given our druthers, actually prefer to live in, say, a nice quiet English market town or cathedral city, rather than in a Blade Runner-esque dystopia resembling Mumbai or Shanghai. Actually judging by the numbers of Mumbaians and Shanghaiers who are clamouring to join us in the west it seems as though most of them aren’t too keen on living there either.
    “Phil said: The argument is superficially attractive to anyone who is often stuck in traffic or on a crowded train. Yet it is flawed in all sorts of ways.
    For a start, there are more Britons living abroad than foreigners living in Britain, so the UK population is now lower, not higher, because of net migration.”
    But, erm, so what? It would be lower still if immigration had never occurred.
    “Phil said: The strains on public infrastructure have more to do with decades of underinvestment than excess population. The Netherlands is more densely populated than the UK yet its trains are not over-crowded; Paris is more densely populated than London yet its Metro is less cramped than our Tube.:
    There doesn’t seem to be any data to hand about the relative levels of cramping on Dutch Railways or the Paris Metro, but as far as population density is concerned, the Netherlands and England are almost identical at around 390/km2. England seems to provide a more appropriate comparator for the Netherlands than the UK, since it is England where an overwhelming majority of migrants end up. As for Paris, it seems that the 9.6 million people in the Paris urban agglomeration are significantly less cramped overall than the 7.5 million of Greater London, at 3,500/km2 compared to 4,800/km2, respectively (all stats courtesy of Wikipedia).
    “Phil said: While the Office of National Statistics recently projected, by extrapolating recent trends decades forward, a 10 million increase in the UK population by 2031, there is no reason why this should turn out to be true. The ONS projection is simply a possible scenario, not a forecast, let alone a certainty.”
    It is silly to state there is *no* reason why it should turn out to be true. If the ONS has used the correct assumptions, it will be sure to occur, if they haven’t, it won’t.
    “Phil said: There is good reason to think that the recent rate of population growth will not be sustained. The increase in the population in recent years is largely due to the one-off opening of our borders to Poland and the other new EU member states – and it appears to be mostly temporary. Many Poles are, in effect, international commuters who split their lives between Britain and Poland – and with the Polish economy looking perkier while Britain’s slows and the falling pound devalues wages here, many Poles are returning home.”
    As is well-known, the number of arrivals is bounded on the lower end by the number of worker registrations recorded, and the number of NI numbers issued (not sure how non-working dependents figure into this), while so far at least only anecdotal reports exist concerning the number of returnees. The true state of play may not be known until the 2011 Census.
    “Phil said: Seemingly inexorable trends often reverse unpredictably. Lest we forget, as recently as the 1990s, many were worried about the prospect of a falling population. In 2001, as the oil price plunged below $10 a barrel, analysts did not envisage that it would soon soar to over $100 a barrel. So yes, the UK population may rise a lot over the next 25 years. Or it may rise a little. Or it may not rise at all.”
    It’s correct, any of those three population scenarios *might* occur but the prudent and responsible planning assumption going forward would surely be to hope for the best but plan for the worst, rather than blithely meander on keeping our fingers crossed that the wheels don’t come off in the meantime.
    “Phil said: Even if the population does rise, since when are other people such a bad thing? While population growth can cause strains on infrastructure and public services unless it is matched by correspondingly increased investment, it is not inherently undesirable. Many British people do not appear to think that living at close quarters is terrible: they opt to live in Glasgow rather than the Grampians, and flock from Lincolnshire to London.”
    Most people in Britain, as in other western societies, live in urban settings for primarily economic reasons. Given a choice, many prefer not to, as demonstrated by that the fact that the ‘indigenous’ populations of the ten major cities in Britain are all smaller now than it was in 1950. In the case of London, the ‘native’ population is dramatically smaller now than it was it in 1950. So rather than people flocking from the Shires to London, the reverse seems to be happening these days.
    “Phil said: Far from being a problem, more people can be a boon. Other people are what make our lives special; and the more people there are, the greater the chances of coming up with the new ideas that transform our lives for the better. Nobel laureate Douglass North, for instance, argues that the reason why innovation (and thus living standards) have soared over the past few hundred years is because there are more people able to contribute valuable new ideas.”
    If sheer numbers were the key determinant in whether or not a society is innovative and able to support high living standards, we should expect to be seeing great numbers of Chinese, Indian and other Asian Nobel Laureates in the ‘hard’ sciences, as well as GDP per capita levels approaching western norms. The fact that we don’t see such things occurring indicates that something other than simply more people is the key ingredient for societal and economic success. To pursue the ‘more is better’ argument to its logical conclusion, the optimum immigration strategy for the EU to follow would be to invite the entire population of China and India to come over and join us as soon as it is convenient for them to do so.
    “Phil said: If you are worried about the environmental impact of population growth, migration is not necessarily a problem. From a global perspective, migratory flows merely alter where people are located, not the total number. And it is difficult to argue, if you care about the planet, that Britain is less able to cope with extra people than, say, Bangladesh. Moreover, there is no reason why a rising population cannot go hand-in-hand with more eco-friendly living. For instance, while London’s population has risen considerably in recent years, traffic congestion has fallen thanks to the congestion charge.”
    The plain, unvarnished truth is that anyone who cares about the planet should shudder at the thought that the 8-plus billion people who will form the Third World by 2050 will be aspiring to western-style levels of material consumption as they are currently being encouraged to do by the Nattering Nabobs of Globalisation.
    “Phil said: It is a myth that Britain is full up. The Daily Mail used to argue likewise in the 1930s as a pretext for keeping out German Jews, yet somehow Britain has accommodated over 10 million extra people since. While parts of the country are more densely populated than others, there is still plenty of space: nearly three-quarters of Britain is agricultural land.”
    “Somehow” is the key word here. There is little doubt that many, many millions more people could be physically accommodated within these islands. We might even contemplate accommodating a billion or more within a single Mega-city state on the Singapore or Hong Kong model, both of which have population densities 25 times that of the UK. But such a scenario would entail that 95% of the population lives in high-rise tower blocks rather like the ones that local authorities are currently pulling down all over the UK. It would also necessitate the almost complete cessation of all agriculture and elimination of most of the countryside, as well as stringent restrictions on private car ownership. Can’t see many folk opting for such a package somehow.
    “Phil said: At the government’s target density, the 3 million new homes that it is planning to build – mostly to accommodate pent-up demand due to more people living apart rather than recent immigration – would take up a measly 0.31% of Britain’s total surface area – and even less if they are built on brownfield sites.”
    But houses are not built on Britain’s ‘total surface area’; they are built primarily in areas in which usable land is already scarce, and on land that might better be used for other purposes, such as agriculture or horticulture, or simply for recreational amenities which could provide a little extra elbow-room or breathing space for the existing population.
    “Phil said: While some people are no doubt genuinely worried about the prospect of a rising population – and I am not imputing their motives for being so – others are using it as a convenient cover for their dislike of allowing in foreigners. After all, we don’t hear the Conservatives proposing a one-child policy to keep the population down, do we?”
    No, we don’t, but given the prevailing fertility rate of the indigenous population, that is hardly necessary anyway. Without immigration, the British population would likely gently trend downwards over the long term, which is not necessarily such a terrible thing to have happen, is it?

  2. Chris says:

    Good article. The inanity of the response helps show how strong Philippe’s argument is.

  3. Neil Gardner says:

    Philippe, in your parallel universe free lunches can be sustained indefinitely. In mine, free lunches are temporary illusions in years of plenty. Now, let’s look at your arguments. First you attempt to compare the Netherlands with the UK. The Netherlands is a small fertile country, indeed one of the most fertile in the world, that could almost sustain itself, although like Britain has long relied on trade. To make a reasonable comparison, you’d have to take the Southeast of England, which is actually smaller, more populous and produces less food than the Netherlands.
    Next you reassure us that Eastern Europeans are international commuters and many Britons have migrated to sunnier climes, 700,000 to Spain alone. But in what way does this promote environmentally sustainable development? It merely means milions of Europeans wasting valuable resources on transportation to make the London labour market more competitive, increase food imports to the UK and litter the Bulgarian riviera with second homes for Londoners. It’s plainly insane as are your continued insinuations that population realists are just Daily Mail reading bigots (at best) and eugenic racists at worst. Honestly, the world would be a much better place if the Europeans, chielfy the British, had not embarked on a 500 year mission to colonise and depradate the rest of the globe. As said, elsewhere, let’s learn to live within our means before we start attracting more human traffic to the money-laundering capital of the world (London).

  4. Nora Lung says:

    Excellent article Philippe, well documented book and AS ALWAYS some people like Mr Stan Ogden still continue to refuse reality even if it is put right under their nose. His answers backed by nothing but weak arguments are pathetic!
    IMMIGRANTS,…..WE NEED YOU!

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