The UK population is growing unusually fast, too. At the present rate of progress, the Office for National Statistics expects it to swell by 4.6 million during the 2010s – “the biggest growth in the last 50 years”. In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK had almost 65 million inhabitants, its greatest ever total. It is predicted to be home to more people than France by 2030 and more people than Germany by 2047, which would make this much smaller land mass the most populous country in Europe.
In 2010, a cross-party group – including the Labour MP and poverty expert Frank Field, the economic historian Lord Skidelsky and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey – issued a “Declaration on Population”. It warned that a UK population of 70 million – which will arrive about 2030, based on current trends – “would be seriously damaging to the future harmony of our society.” Days later, David Cameron announced his ill-fated plan to reduce net immigration.
But is alarm the right response to the population boom? Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research thinks not. “Population is not well discussed in Britain,” he says. “Our self-image is an old and constrained country. We find it hard to be positive about population growth. But it has boosted economic growth. It has made austerity less painful, by increasing total employment and tax revenues. And congestion, pressure on services – they’re considerably easier to cope with, from a collective point of view, than the opposite problems. We’ve forgotten what depopulation feels like.”
He thinks the population panic will pass. “I find it hard to believe that we’ll have this gloomy discourse on population in 20 years’ time.” Portes agrees: “You can build more schools and hospitals. Population redistribution is hard, but not impossible. You obviously can’t plonk people in the middle of nowhere, but we built new towns in the 50s. Why not build more within commuting distance of, say, Manchester?”