7 August 2020

Is it really time to panic about our overcrowded islands?

By

Is Britain an overcrowded island, failing to hear the tick-tock of the demographic timebomb?

That’s the argument made in a piece by former Downing Street speechwriter Clare Foges in the Times. The case she presents sounds compelling: congested roads, inadequate housing, packed commuter trains and demand for school places spiralling out of control as the UK buckles under the weight of an ever bigger population, the growth of which will come mainly from new arrivals and their children.

To solve the problem, she suggests a new Demographic Authority tasked with drawing up “long-term strategies on population management” – an idea also supported by the ‘Common Sense’ group of Conservative MPs.

‘Overcrowded’?

It’s first worth dealing with the claim that Britain is ‘overcrowded’. This is one of those phrases you hear all the time when immigration is discussed, often with the word ‘island’ thrown in, as if at some point we’ll get so full up that people will start falling into the English Channel.

In a simple geographical sense it’s clearly untrue. The Ordnance Survey suggests that just 1.4% of the UK is covered by buildings of any sort, not just houses. Even in more densely populated England that figure is only about 2%. The idea that our green and pleasant land is now a sea of concrete simply does not bear scrutiny. If the landscape has been despoiled and trees felled en masse, it’s to make room for pasture, not penthouses.

Now, it’s still true that our cities are quite densely populated, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. As an LSE study notes, the effects of density include “increases in productivity due to agglomeration economies, travel time savings due to shorter trips or a smaller ecological footprint due to lower energy and land consumption”. If you’re worried about increased population for environmental reasons, the fact that most Brits live in fairly dense urban areas should be welcome, not worrisome.

Nor is the UK the kind of outlier some of the population panickers might have you believe. The Netherlands, Belgium and South Korea are all more densely populated than the UK and have decent public service and a comparable, or higher, standard of living to ours. Even if we zero in on London, easily the most tightly packed of our cities, it’s not even close to the most densely populated urban areas in France or Spain.

Pressure on services

The corollary of the overcrowding argument is that there are not enough resources to share around a growing population. Foges argues, as have many others, that this means “frustrations and discomforts that inevitably come when there are too many people relying on the same roads, railways, public services, housing stock”.

The problem with this argument is it assumes there is some kind of fixed supply of housing, schools and hospitals, so a larger population will be reliant on the same resources we have now.

That fails to account for several important factors: first, that we can build and revamp existing infrastructure to accommodate more users. Granted, this process is often painfully slow, but that’s more a result of our alluvial plain of regulation and well entrenched vested interests than an excessive number of immigrants (though hopefully the Government’s newly minted planning reforms will make a difference on the housing front).

The fact our transport infrastructure is creaking, for instance, has far more to do with decades of failure to plan for the long term than the relatively recent increase in population. Likewise, if the NHS is under pressure, it is primarily down to big increases in longevity meaning that there are a lot more elderly people needing treatment.

In any case, the idea that new arrivals are a ‘drain on resources’ simply doesn’t fit the evidence. Far from scrounging off the benevolence of the British taxpayer, immigrants tend to be younger, healthier, draw less in benefits and contribute more to the Exchequer than the average UK citizen. As Sam Dumitriu has noted on this site, immigrants are also disproportionately likely to start flourishing businesses – just the kind of people we ought to be rolling out the red carpet for. Yet when it comes to the economic impact of a higher population, Foges seems to want to have her cake and eat it, claiming to “query the benefits on a per capita basis” but also that “GDP should not be the sole and central measure of our national success anyway”.

None of this means that we shouldn’t be in the business of controlling immigration. That is precisely what the Government campaigned on in the 2019 election and has already set out in its post-Brexit immigration plan. It therefore seems strange to argue, as Foges does that the political class is ignoring this question when we’ve spent much of the last 10 years talking about little else. Mentioning overcrowding and pressure on services is not speaking truth to power, it’s repeating the things politicians and pundits have been saying themselves for years.

On whose authority?

But even if you are convinced that we’re heading for the rocks and the population needs to be tightly managed, is creating a new Demographic Authority really the way to go about it?

For one thing, there’s a profound problem with Whitehall trying to determine what the optimal population for the country ought to be. It would surely be an epic example of Goodhart’s Law, with policies skewed towards an arbitrary target and all the negative consequences that would flow from that. There is simply no way that a group of officials, however talented, can predict what a nation’s economic needs will be in even a year’s time, let alone 10 or 20. (The same is true of the current ‘Shortage Occupation List’, whereby the Government tries to pick which British industries are most in need of workers.)

And what happens if the NHS is short of 200,000 workers, say, but the ‘population limit’ has already been reached? Do we simply ignore that need, or increase the optimal population to accommodate it, in which case the original target is rendered meaningless?

Then there’s the problem of regional disparities. Should the Demographic Authority therefore be split into different bodies for each of the four nations of the UK, or even for different regions? Should sparsely populated Scotland’s Demographic Authority be charged with increasing the population, while England’s is tasked with keeping it down – at least in London and the south-east?

In any case, isn’t this what the Home Office and the Migration Advisory Committee are there for? A new office or quango seems less like a way to improve public policy than an excuse for buck-passing. And given that ‘taking back control’ was meant to be about more democratic accountability, it would be odd to create an additional layer of officialdom to oversee this area.

Of course, the Government should listen to its voters concerns and address their priorities. The best way to do that is to focus on efficient, responsive public services underpinned by a dynamic economy, not reaching for convenient scapegoats or engaging in neo-Malthusian population panic.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.