Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.
Robin Hodgson’s excellent recent pamphlet, explores the critical link between our growing population, and issues like housing shortages and infrastructure overstretch. He has – rightly – won support from some heavy hitting MPs, including John Hayes, in his call for a standing commission – a Demographic Authority – to examine and advise on population issues, along the lines of the Office of Budget Responsibility’s oversight of fiscal matters.
Good as the proposals are, I want to suggest a different intermediate approach for the short term, closer to the Government’s current programme. At a time when it is handling both the Covid crisis and an unusually heavy programme of change, not least from Brexit, there is a danger that a proposal to set up an entirely new body may be simply brushed aside as a bridge too far.
First let’s take a deep dive into the issues. The Government’s commitment to more building is surely right, whatever one’s view of the detail of the proposed planning reforms; this site has carried many articles on how unaffordable housing is in large parts of the UK. It is terrible for young people wishing to set up home, and the collapse in home ownership has played a critical role in the fall in Conservative support among the under 40s. We have to make housing – both to rent and, even more important, to buy – affordable again.
Yet, at the same time a parallel, and almost entirely separate, debate has taken place on immigration, despite the fact that immigration is the major factor in population growth, itself the main cause of increased demand for housing; last year, the Office for National Statistics predicted that the population would rise by another three million over the next decade to around 70 million.
It predicts that four fifths of this will be from migrants arriving and having children, only one fifth from natural change – ie more births than deaths as people live longer. (There is an additional factor driving demand, independent of population size, but smaller in effect: household size is on a long-term decline, as families break up and more people live alone, meaning more homes required per thousand people).
In other words, in the course of two Parliaments, on current projections, we have to build homes for three million extra people – more than the population of Greater Manchester – before a single extra property is available to tackle housing shortages.
It is against this background that our new immigration policy needs to be reviewed as a matter of urgency. It contains a welcome end to free movement with the EU, in line with our manifesto promise. We also have pledges from Boris Johnson and Priti Patel to take action on the disgraceful cross-channel trafficking of illegal migrants.
Nevertheless, important and welcome though these measures are, neither addresses what are now the two largest categories of migration: those coming to work (now overwhelmingly from outside the EU) and – counter-intuitively – students who settle and their dependants.
Take workers first. The new points-based approach for all migrants applying to work is welcome but the key is the level of movement it allows. It is right that some categories (such as doctors) should have no cap but surely, at a time when unemployment is rising fast as a result of Covid, wrong that the Government proposes to lower the minimum income level, paving the way for more workers from outside the EU.
Leaving the current Covid crisis aside, a wider point applies. Immigration policy, especially in the field of employment, is set after taking advice from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).
That body has a remit which is focused almost exclusively on a narrow subset of economic factors, the needs of the labour market. The papers the MAC has published look in a balanced but narrow fashion at the requirements of sections of the economy and regions of the UK, as well as the impact on existing workers. Housing and infrastructure issues – such as transport congestion, water shortages, flooding etc – are barely mentioned.
This is underlined by work MAC commissioned from Oxford Economics, which analyses the net benefit/cost of categories of migrants entirely in “current” terms, ie tax payments made, benefits drawn etc, ignoring the capital (and social) costs of funding new infrastructure to meet a rising population. What is urgently needed is for the Government to extend MAC’s brief to cover housing pressures and infrastructure requirements as well as the job market.
The second major problem with the system relates to students. All governments have recognised the importance of encouraging “the brightest and the best” young people from around the world to come and study in our universities. But here has also been a sustained campaign, orchestrated by the higher education lobby, to take these students out of our immigration statistics.
This would, incidentally, mean abandoning the internationally agreed measure of migration. Much more important, two studies by ONS illustrate why it would be a serious policy mistake. In 2016, one study showed that the influx of students was running at well over double the number of students leaving the UK, (those who had finished their stay and British students travelling to study abroad), a net inflow of 135,000.
The second ONS study in 2018 showed that students and their dependents amounted to almost 30 per cent of all people granted settlement in the UK the previous year. Any serious attempt to get control of migration has to include students.
Under the new (but pre-Covid) rules, any student is automatically granted two years right of abode after finishing his or her course, despite the large surplus of UK graduates; only half of recent UK graduates work in graduate level roles, according to an Education Select committee report – and that was pre-Covid.
This is compounded by the fact that there are no national standards for student entry (domestic or foreign) so any university struggling for funds can accept any student who can get a study visa and can pay the first year’s fees. Worse still, the visa regime is under constant pressure from the universities and others to “relax”. David Cameron closed over 800 dodgy colleges, but we are close to a point where, without proper academic hurdles, would-be economic migrants no longer need them – they can often use a university instead.
So students should be included in our immigration strategy. The policy of allowing a two-year stay needs to be reviewed in the light of Covid and a tight restriction imposed on staying on, unless they have valuable skills not available in the domestic pool. Overdue measures should be introduced to ensure that students do actually return at the end the end of their stay.
In summary, the Government, from the Prime Minister down, is right to identify housing shortages as a critical social ill and boost building. But a policy which seeks to boost supply without doing anything to tackle rising demand, driven by heavy migration, can only succeed if we build on a scale which is probably unachievable.
Even if it did succeed for a while, it would come at the price of overload on public services, heavy congestion, water shortages and even flooding, as flood plains disappear under concrete.
Adopting these simple reforms for applicant workers, advice from the MAC and for students – and improving enforcement – would go a long way to solving the housing crisis and reducing the growing pressure on our infrastructure.