Lord Hodgson is a Conservative peer and author of the new Civitas paper, ‘Britain’s Demographic Challenge‘.
In 2016 Britain’s population increased by 1,475 per day. This means that we are putting a small town with 10,000 inhabitants onto the map of Britain every week.
There are many resulting consequences. For example, we currently live with an average of 2.3 people per dwelling. So to house these new people to the same standard – and I assume we all agree we should not treat them any worse – we need 642 dwellings per day.
If you choose to work through the mathematics this means a new dwelling every two minutes, night and day. And this is before allowing for any improvement to our existing housing stock.
As for the future, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has a mid-projection for the population of Britain in 2039 which shows an increase of 9.7 million people. This means we need over four million dwellings over the next 22 years – one every three minutes! – which represents three cities the size of Manchester.
Of course it is not just housing that will be needed. We shall need schools, hospitals, shops, offices, factories, playing fields, police stations etc. etc. Can we expect to see such a dramatic set of changes without some risk to our social cohesion?
Too often discussion of population growth are seen only through an economic prism. Even more bizarre is the statement that more people will mean a larger economy – it would indeed be counter-intuitive if you had a larger population and a smaller economy.
The key question is what is the change in GNP per head, and here the answer is pretty nuanced even before you take into the impact of any non-economic effects, such as potential damage to the environment, to the countryside, and to people’s general well-being. These element cannot easily be measured but they are none the less real.
Demographic policies take a long time to have any effect – certainly it can be 15 and in many cases 25 years before their full impact is felt. This, together with the sensitive nature of the whole topic, explains why successive governments have been reluctant to face up to the challenges. They have preferred to follow Einstein’s saying: ‘I never think about the future, it comes soon enough’.
Britain is geographically a small country and so, unlike say the USA, we cannot afford not to consider the implications of the future rate of population growth.
The UK is already much more densely populated than France or Germany. On the above figures the we will overtake Germany as the largest country in Europe in about 2060, by which time England alone will be more densely populated than the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, such work as is being done in this area is being done in the silos of different government departments. A vanishingly small effort has been put into considering the issue strategically from the top down.
We need a Minister for Demography, who will be charged with looking across government to assess the impact of individual departmental decisions. They will also be responsible for bringing local government into the debate – it is after all at local level, not in Whitehall, that the real strains to our social cohesion will be felt.
Another important role will be to establish a proper evidence base – too many of the statistics in this area are clearly flawed and this has undermined public confidence in the accuracy of what they are being told.
Finally he or she will also have an important role in untangling the claims and counter-claims that bedevil discussion of this issue and sharing all his conclusions with the general public .
For those of us who are over 65 much of this is largely academic. By the time the full impact of these changes are felt we are likely either to be dead, or dribbling into our cornflakes and not aware of anything much!
But for people who are now in their twenties, thirties, and forties there is a serious debate to be had about the sort of country they want to live in during the middle third of the 21st Century. My objective in writing this pamphlet is try and set that debate going.