Politicians Must Be Open About UK Population And The Need For More Infrastructure

UK Deputy Prime Minister Clegg disputed UKIP leader Nigel Farage's claims about the the need to build a city the size of Manchester to cope with population growth. Yet ONS data shows we shall need to build the equivalent of a country the size of Belgium over 25 years...

UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg disputed UKIP party leader Nigel Farage’s claim that we need to build a city the size of Manchester to cope with population growth. Yet ONS data shows we shall need to build the equivalent of a whole country the size of Belgium over 25 years… Picture courtesy: BBC

There was a moment in the BBC debate between Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and UKIP leader Nigel Farage that touched on a massive issue for the future of the UK that our politicians seem reluctant to confront: the rate of our population growth; our ability to build and, crucially, to pay for the infrastructure that will be needed; and the impact that all this building will have on the environment of our still green and pleasant land.

Farage referred to a report from Migration Watch, the immigration lobby group, which suggested that a city the size of Manchester will be needed to cope with levels of migration over the next five years. Clegg dismissed Migration Watch’s findings as “complete nonsense”, saying that migration on that scale would not happen.

Now Migration Watch has its own agenda and people will take a view on the content of its reports but the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) does not have any such agenda and its data reveals some stark facts about the projected population growth. The ONS published its forecasts for population growth in November 2013 based on 2012 data and some brutal mathematics stares out from its spreadsheets: Britain’s population is projected to grow hugely – by around 2m in five years and by around 10m over 25 years, reaching 74m sometime around 2039.

Build A Belgium

To put this ONS forecast into context, it is roughly equivalent to adding the population, not of another Manchester, but of a whole country the size of, say, a Belgium or an Austria. To cope with this huge increase in the number of people, we will need to build additional infrastructure on a scale necessary to support a small country: everything from houses, schools and hospitals to roads, water supplies and power stations. Furthermore, we will need to find the investment to pay for all this building at a time when we are already having to tap up the French and the Chinese to replace our existing electricity generating capacity. And that is to say nothing of the environmental cost of such an expansion in terms of land use, food production and, yes, even carbon emissions. Inevitably, London and the south east will merge into a giant urban sprawl to rival the great mega cities of the Far East as the economy of this region continues to act as a giant people magnet. Property prices in the south east will inevitably rise. You can expect to hear about many more planning battles between developers and residents in the shires. And traffic jams everywhere will get a lot worse…

Now it is worth pointing out that such an increase would still leave us less densely populated than Holland and much less crowded than Japan but it will dramatically change the nature of our country and it is a fact that this prospect has hardly been debated by our mainstream politicians.

Four key drivers

And the reason for this is due to the underlying cause of the projected increase in our population. There are only four fundamental drivers to population: births, deaths, emigration and immigration. Of course, some of the projected increase is due to increased life expectancy and some to rising birth rates – bluntly, fewer people are dying and more are being born. But, as the ONS data makes clear, it is a fact that most of the projected increase will be due either directly or indirectly to immigration: directly from immigrants entering the country and indirectly due to the additional children being born to immigrants after they arrive here. This is why mainstream politicians are reluctant to confront the population issue.

Also, the forecast 10m increase could look small, and the rate of population increase may be much faster than anticipated, if the ONS projections are underestimates. Already data for February 2014 suggests that the November 2013 projections could be on the low side. The ONS population projections assume that net migration will run at around 165,000 a year while the February ONS data showed an estimated net flow of 212,000 long-term migrants into the UK in the year ending September 2013 – continued over 25 years such a difference would add a further 1m to the projected 10m increase in UK population.

Whatever the final increase turns out to be, there is little doubt that Britain is set to become a more populous, more crowded island, with ever more of our green and pleasant land being covered with concrete, bricks and tarmac. The population projections involve huge numbers, large costs and enormous implications for the future of our country and yet the leaders of the main parties are not talking about this issue.

It is high time they started.


See the ONS population data here.

See ONS February net migration 2014 data here.

Note: this post is partly based on a previous blog post that has been updated.

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