Enough with the Malthusian miserablism

An expanding UK population is not a problem, but the scepticism towards economic growth most definitely is.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

The latest release of data from the 2011 UK Census suggests that the population of England and Wales rose by seven per cent since 2001. The news has brought forth much anguished commentary about how overcrowded the UK is and how we will soon be unable to afford to teach the growing numbers of children, pay pensions or treat the sick.

The rise over the past decade is the biggest on record, from 52.4million to 56.1million. In proportional terms, however, that’s not very different from the rises seen between the 1901 and 1911 censuses (when population rose from 32.6million to 36.1million) and between 1951 and 1961 (a rise from 43.8million to 46.9million). The twist is that a substantial part of the rise is from net immigration, both from countries that have recently joined the EU and from outside the EU.

‘With the exception of tiny Malta, England is now the most crowded country in Europe, with 407 people for every square kilometre’, declared the Daily Mail before blaming this fact on ‘record immigration’. The Mail quoted Conservative immigration minister Damian Green: ‘These figures are firm evidence that Labour let immigration run out of control.’

The chairman of Migration Watch UK, Sir Andrew Green, warned that population would run out of control if immigration were not quelled: ‘The latest projections show that immigration will account for two thirds of our population increase in the next 15 years. That is five million people and is the equivalent of the combined populations of Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Sheffield, Bradford, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol. Nobody wants to see the population grow at this rate.’

Simon Ross, of neo-Malthusian lobby group Population Matters, demanded that we think of the planet: ‘England faces unsustainable pressure on housing, roads and public transport and green spaces.’ For Ross, the problem is too much demand – in other words, too many people. ‘The response from many is often to increase the supply – to demand more building, more roads and more infrastructure… What we need instead to do is limit the demand – to say that prospects for our prosperity and quality of life in Britain do not improve with ever more people.’

In reality, the UK is more than capable of coping with, and benefiting from, the arrival of more people. Those who do come are usually of working age, boosting the workforce at a time when average ages are rising. The UK’s ‘problem’ of a rising population would seem to be a far better one to have than that which faces many other countries, where population is both ageing and falling. If people do want to come to the UK, that is a product of relative economic wealth. And those immigrants – very often the most dynamic sections of the societies that they come from – should help to generate even more wealth.

Talk of overcrowding is nonsense. The Mail selectively talks about England, but Monday’s figures cover England and Wales. Overall, they show a population density of 371 people per square kilometre – still below that of the Netherlands. In any event, as BBC home editor Mark Easton and numerous others have pointed out, England is only about 10 per cent urban area and Wales is just 4.1 per cent urbanised. When you take into account city greenspace – like parks, allotments, playing fields and gardens – the built-on area of relatively urbanised England is just 2.27 per cent.

Yes, London is densely populated – apparently 16 times more densely populated than the national average – but it is clearly still enormously popular, its population having increased by 850,000 between 2001 and 2011. But even then, London still enjoys large open spaces like Regent’s Park, Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath in close proximity to its centre. The eight royal parks alone cover nearly 20 square kilometres. There’s still plenty of room to breathe.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to be glib about a rapidly changing population because it does bring into relief some significant problems. For example, there is a desperate housing shortage in London, with houses too expensive for many people to buy and rents shooting upwards. There are simply not enough homes being built to supply the capital’s rising population. But the answer is not in reducing the numbers moving in but in tackling the barriers to supplying those homes – like the ring of ‘green belt’ land that surrounds London which should be made available for new developments.

The real question is this: how can we see a way forward to a prosperous future? Put like that, the answer is to produce more wealth and not, as Simon Ross cluelessly believes, to try to divide our existing, stagnating wealth among fewer people. We need economic growth, and that means the UK must become more productive. That, in turn, requires a mixture of investment in infrastructure, education and training, the creation of a better environment for wealth-creating businesses and a fairly ruthless assault on relatively unproductive sectors of the economy.

Unfortunately, we have a political class that seems incapable of driving that process forward, and a culture in which the idea of economic growth is regarded in influential quarters as, at best, a mixed blessing and at worst a selfish, materialistic and planet-wrecking addiction.

There is no ‘right’ number of people for the UK or anywhere else. We should certainly welcome more freedom of movement so that people can make the most of the opportunities open to them. Blaming immigration – or fecund immigrant families, for that matter – for the UK’s problems is wrong-headed. Instead of scapegoating the newest and often poorest members of our society, we need to tackle the low-growth outlook at the top.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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