Population: are we really ‘full’?

27th Nov, 2015

Getting on the tube, or any other train in London most weekday mornings, you could very well think that the capital and the rest of the UK was dangerously overcrowded.

That’s certainly the view of Nigel Farage, who greeted the recent ONS population projections – which forecast a rise in the UK population to 74.3m by 2039 – with no shortage of concern about the potential impact on the Victoria Line.

Concerns like Farage’s were typical of the reactions to the projections – with Nicholas Soames (Conservative) and Frank Field (Labour) among other politicians to worry publicly about overcrowding, the housing crisis and migration. Overpopulation is a hot topic in the media, especially as it relates to immigration. Negative media interpretation of the impact of migration on the UK – both culturally and economically – plays no small part in influencing public perception of the issue. The effect is warping, with people believing that we’re full, and that migrants account for 24% of the population (it’s actually 13%).

It’s also well worth interrogating the concerns themselves. The recent UK Ecosystem Assessment found that just 10.6% of England was urban. Moreover, much of that urban landscape is considered naturally urban (as it’s been there so long). Ultimately, the report concludes that just 2.27% of England is actually built on. So we’re not quite at capacity – unless you count 98% empty as full.

We’re not quite at capacity – unless you count 98% empty as full.

The relentless focus on immigration in relation to population growth is itself misplaced. Another key driver of population growth is ageing and longevity – people aren’t dying quite as quickly as they used to. This, more than anything else is what will change the population over the next 25 years, as an increasingly older society will need to find ways to support its retired population. To this extent, the presence of relatively high migration and a relatively high birth rate is enormously beneficial (and something of which those shrinking populations of Japan, Germany, Russia and Spain would be envious).

The alarm over population growth is also linked to economic trends, especially the recent uncoupling of GDP growth and Population growth. Throughout the 20th century these grew in tandem in the UK, but the last decade has seen this relationship loosen amid a climate of low productivity.

Problems of high immigration and overcrowding are nothing compared to the cost of stalling population growth through either limiting the number of people coming in or through capping family size. The example of Japan, who over the next 40 years will see their retired population grow from 25% to 40%, and will see their total population shrink from 127m to 90m is a stark warning sign: economic growth of any kind will be impossible under those circumstances.

The question of whether we have enough people in the UK is only as relevant as the question of whether we have the right demographic balance of people – and the contribution those people make to the economy. With this in mind, steady and stable population growth is perhaps the best guarantee of a secure future – provided our workforce and public service delivery is reconfigured to realise the potential for growth.

These issues and many more were discussed at our recent Trends Breakfast. To download the slides from that event, please click here, while to keep informed about future events please sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of the page.