27 September 2022

To handle the politics of population, Britain needs an Office for Demographic Change

By Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

Change is in the autumnal air in Westminster and with a new Government in place, there is much talk and evidence of radical policy. One wonders if this extends to the Home Office where the new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has a hefty in-tray to work through. Top of the list should be how to handle the intractable challenge of immigration and, by extension, the impact of population growth on a whole range of aspects of our nation’s life. 

We have been consistently told by a range of powerful voices that the country needs high levels of immigration (despite the fact it was in the tens of thousands for most of the latter half of the 20th century), and yet at the same time voters consistently say they want it reduced. This view has not changed post-Brexit. Polling I commissioned last year showed that 71% of the country are concerned about the latest forecast that the UK population will reach 71 million by 2045. The vast majority of voters dislike the inevitable consequences of immigration and endless promises of control and reductions in immigration have hugely eroded their trust in Government to observe and carry out their wishes. 

This is understandable given the UK has a relatively small landmass and population growth can in places be a zero-sum game, a phenomenon that doesn’t apply to the USA, Canada or Australia. Indeed, England is among the most densely populated countries in Europe with 434 people per sq km.

Many in Conservative ranks say we need more houses, which is no surprise given our population has grown by nine million people in the last 25 years and the last census revealed that the number of households had grown by 1.4 million over the last ten years. Now Liz Truss is saying she wants to liberalise immigration rules even further in her quest to boost growth. But Conservative electoral prospects are just as tied to controlling immigration as they are to housebuilding. So why not approach housebuilding with a plan for population at the same time? 

This, in part, is why I proposed the creation of the Office for Demographic Change (ODC) which would look at demographic changes on the broadest possible basis – unlike the Migration Advisory Committee, whose sole focus is the economic impact of migration. I don’t dismiss the economic considerations, but demographic changes also impact housing, ecology, the environment, food and water security, as well as broader societal changes. Like the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) the ODC would be an independent body where calm, rational, evidence-based discussions can take place, and from which carefully considered policy decisions can flow. 

And as we are increasingly reminded, population can go up and down, so whilst the UK seems unlikely to have a falling population any time soon, the ODC would be tasked to think about this too – and indeed the dependency ratio, which again we are told requires us to grow our population. But because today’s young people are tomorrow’s old people, what people are not told is the implications of maintaining the dependency ratio. If, for example, we wanted to maintain it at 2006 levels that implies a population of 100m by 2050, some 30 million above current projections, requiring yet more new arrivals. We must find a sustainable alternative that has public consent.  

And whilst I am sure the Home Secretary will be tempted to make eye-catching announcements in relation to illegal migration in the English Channel, this is just a small part of the overall challenge. One million people came to the UK legally last year compared to 28,000 illegally. Yes that’s right one million people came to the UK last year.

This new government was launched on the promise of delivery, and deliver it must. David Cameron said he would reduce immigration to tens of thousands, Theresa May supported the same target and Boris Johnson promised in his manifesto that overall numbers would come down. As Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Restoring trust will take time, patience but above all palpable and demonstrable action.

Establishing the Office for Demographic Change would be a significant and serious sign of action. It would signal at long last that a long-term challenge like demography is being thoroughly investigated and considered. And it would make planning reform infinitely more palatable.

The consequences of doing nothing are profound both in the short term at the ballot box, but in the medium to long term when voters will inevitably cast around for a more sinister political force to carry out their wishes. We can see this happening in Europe and should not be complacent about politics here.

The consequences of decisions on demography, taken or not taken, will not become fully apparent for 15 or 20 years. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to look down the road at the country we may be leaving them.

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Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts is a Conservative peer.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.