Why high population growth need not be a problem

According to the latest forecasts by the Office for National Statistics, the population of the UK is going to increase to 73.7m by 2036, with net migration accounting for over 90% of that increase. The usual suspects are up in arms. Nigel Farage describes it as a ‘population crisis’ which is ‘rapidly getting worse and damaging the quality of life for everyone’. The issue was also raised at this week’s ‘Popular Conservatism’ (‘PopCon’) launch event.

One should not dismiss this as scaremongering, ‘scapegoating foreigners’ or ‘demonising migrants’, because it is nothing of the sort. It is true that the British housing stock is woefully inadequate for the population that is already here, never mind millions more. Something similar could be said about much of the country’s physical infrastructure, as well as some of its public services.

So I am not going to do the cheap thing, and accuse Farage & Co of ‘dogwhistle racism’ or ‘stirring up hatred’, because I don’t think that’s accurate, or fair.

But what I will accuse them of is a defeatist ‘Cheems Mindset’. The Faragistas have completely resigned themselves to the idea that Britain is inherently incapable of coping with a growing population.

The ONS forecast implies a population growth rate of about 0.6% per annum. That is a lot. But it is not, in any way, exceptional – neither by international nor by historical standards.

In the 19th century, the population of England used to grow by more than 1% per annum, so over the course of the century as a whole, it more than trebled, from under 10m to over 30m. This was also an era of steady improvements in virtually every respect. Britain became richer, housing became more affordable, the country became more mobile, and the population’s health was improving, as indicated by the rising life expectancy and falling infant mortality. (Indeed, the latter two explain why the population grew so fast in the first place.)

In the 1920s and 1930s, population growth rates were about the same as what the ONS forecasts today, yet this was also an era of economic and social improvements. Britain clearly was once capable of coping, and very successfully so, with population growth rates comparable to, or higher, than current ones.

So what changed?

It is very simple. Back then, Britain used to build things. Britain used to build houses, roads, railways, and much else. The country’s housing stock, for example, used to grow by between 1% and 2% per year, outstripping population growth.

Some economists believe that high population growth is a good thing. I would not go quite so far, but at least, high population growth often coincides with good times. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, the population of West Germany grew by over 20% (from 51mto over 61m), as a result of a domestic post-war baby boom, an influx of refugees from East Germany and the former Eastern territories, and the arrival of migrant workers from Southern Europe. In West German folk memory, this period is not at all associated with a “population crisis” that was “rapidly getting worse and damaging the quality of life for everyone”. It is, on the contrary, remembered as the golden age of Ludwig Erhard’s Wirtschaftswunder.

In the second half of the 20th century, the population of Japan grew from 83m to 127m, the population of Taiwan grew from under 8m to over 22m, and the population of South Korea grew from just over 20m to just under 47m. A ‘population crisis’ that was ‘damaging the quality of life for everyone’? Far from it: this was when those countries came to be known as the “Asian Tigers”, who caught up with, and in some cases, overtook the West.

Over the course of my lifetime (since 1980), the population of Singapore has more than doubled, from 2.4m to 5.6m today, and the population of Hong Kong has grown by 40%, from 5.2m to 7.3m. Happy days.

None of this is to say that we should just accept, or even welcome, the migration flows forecast by the ONS. One can make a perfectly good case for an immigration system that is a lot more selective in either economic or in cultural terms – or both. But the fact that Britain is not building housing and infrastructure is a huge problem in its own right, and it would still be one even if we had the kind of immigration system that Nigel Farage would be happy with.


This article was first published on CapX

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Editorial Director, and Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

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