A record population increase? It's OK, Britain can cope
The population increase revealed by the census will pressure services. But numbers can create a false image of overcrowding.
Should we see a rise in our population as a problem, or an opportunity? Is there an optimum level of population? Are we simply "too crowded" to cope with more immigration? These are some of the questions raised by this week's publication of the first results from the 2011 census, which showed the largest increase in the population of England and Wales since records began in 1801. The largest in numbers, that is: despite the headlines, the rate of growth, at 7%, is broadly similar to the rate in the decades between 1910 and 1970, and only half the rate in the 19th century (it is a mathematical truism that, at a constant rate of growth, each decade's increase will be the largest ever).
This is not to play down the significance of accommodating three-and-a-half million more people, in terms of the impact on public services, housing, transport and other infrastructure. Earlier this year there were headlines warning of "supersized" primary classes, or pupils having to be taught in two shifts – and the census confirms that there are 400,000 more under-fives than a decade ago.
This reminds us that although the focus this week has unsurprisingly been on how immigration is adding to our population, much of the increase is down to more babies – to British-born as well as foreign-born mothers – and people living longer. Immigration can be hard to plan for – one problem with the influx of eastern Europeans after 2004 was the pace, rather than the scale, and the fact that these migrants went to parts of the country unused to immigration, causing real problems for local services – but the rising trend in the birth rate has been clear and steady for more than five years. And yet the previous government concentrated resources on secondary schools through the Building Schools for the Future programme, and the coalition has chosen to do the same with its more limited investment through free schools The crisis in primary places is mainly a failure of planning and resource prioritisation, not immigration policy.
Despite the real pressure on particular services, it is a mistake to regard a growing population as an overall drain on resources. The extra 400,000 children are future workers, who will staff public services and pay the taxes that fund them. The same is true of immigration: the most recent studies have shown that, on average, migrants (both from the EU and outside) pay in more than they take out. In healthcare, for example, migrants account for less than their share of health spending (around 11%, compared to their 13% of the population) and far more than their share of NHS staff (about a third). And as the Office for Budget Responsibility pointed out last week, more workers – whether born here or abroad – will help reduce the deficit.
Rightwing opponents of immigration are correct to point out that this is only a short-term fix to the problem of an ageing population. Migrants tend to be young, which is why we now have a million more people in their 20s compared with 10 years ago; but of course they will grow old, and so immigration would only be the answer if it continued accelerating indefinitely – which no one is seriously advocating.
The real question is not whether a growing population is a bad thing in itself, but whether we can adapt to it, and whether we have a problem with population density. These are questions that vary enormously across the country. Our population is growing at 7%, but London's population is growing almost twice as fast (12%) and, in the fastest-growing boroughs, twice as fast again. Twenty years ago, the three northern regions of England had the same combined population as London and the south-east; they have now been left far behind, and in some places the population is shrinking. The same variation shows up when we consider the burden on services: the shortfall of primary school places in 2015 is predicted to be 180,000, but almost half will be in London, even though it only has a sixth of the country's population. In other areas of the country school places are vacant.
The same applies to population density. Much of the focus this week has been on England being more crowded than any other major country in the EU or G8, with over 400 people per square kilometre. Leaving aside the dubious validity of comparing England alone with other nation states (if we used the population density for the UK, we would come some way down the table), the problem with this is it obscures the difference between London and the south-east – relatively densely populated and getting more so – and other regions that face very different problems.
Even London is not especially densely populated by historical or global standards. Consider Tower Hamlets, the fastest-growing area in the past decade. It is also one of the most densely populated boroughs in the country, with around 13,000 people per square kilometre: about 80 square metres per person, or about 90 people standing on a football pitch. This is about the same as the population density in Kensington and Chelsea, Britain's wealthiest borough and clearly very different in other respects. It is less than half the population density of Tower Hamlets a hundred years ago. Given increased wealth and technological progress, it ought to be possible to accommodate this level of population density without public services breaking down.
Even in housing, where the failure to respond to the needs of a growing population is perhaps most acute, building enough houses to accommodate our growing population over the next 50 years, far from "concreting over the whole of the country", would increase the amount of England that is developed from 10% to around 13%.
As for those modern-day Malthusians who worry about whether we are recklessly contributing to a global population crisis, it's worth considering that if the entire population of the planet – estimated to have passed 7 billion last year – lived like the residents of Tower Hamlets or Kensington and Chelsea, they would all fit in an area the size of France. Again, global demographics do raise serious issues, but they concern urbanisation and the efficiency andinequality in how we use resources, more than sheer numbers.