A crowded island – but mainly in the South East

communities, migration, regional issues, UK politics

Author(s):  Matt Cavanagh
Published date:  16 Jul 2012
Source:  Spectator, Coffee House Blog

The 2011 Census, published today, shows that the population of England and Wales reached 56.1 million, up by 3.7 million since 2001, and slightly higher than previous estimates.

The three facts which are likely to make the headlines are: that this is the largest ten-year increase since the Census began in 1801; that over half (55 per cent) of the increase was due to net migration; and that the population density of England, at just over 400 people per square kilometre, is higher than G8 countries and all major EU countries except the Netherlands.

But there is more to the Census than these headlines suggest. If 55 per cent of the increase in population was directly due to net migration, that leaves 44 per cent due to natural population increase: the increase in births (6.6 million) relative to deaths (5 million). This natural increase is partly a result of increased fertility (some of which is itself due to migration, with migrants tending to be of child-bearing age, and also initially tending to have higher fertility rates), and partly due to increased longevity. Last year over 16 per cent of residents of England and Wales were over 65 years old, compared to 5 per cent a hundred years ago: a transformation in the age-structure of our society which has very wide implications, from pension policy to care for the elderly, and the topical debate over whether different age-groups are bearing their fair share of the burden of austerity. But in the end, these problems are the unavoidable flip-side of something which most of us surely regard as a great advance – except, perhaps, for zealous advocates of zero population, since the logic of their position demands that increased longevity is a bad thing. 

A second reason not to overreact to today’s figures is that although this is the biggest increase in population since records began, the rate of increase – 7 per cent – is broadly similar to the rate of increase between 1910 and 1970, and only half the average rate of increase between 1801 to 1910. We are growing faster than the EU average: slightly faster than France (6.7 per cent) and Italy (6.4 per cent), but only half as fast as Spain. Among the larger older members of the EU, Germany is the exception, with a shrinking population – though this is giving many Germans cause for concern rather than celebration.

As for population density, we only come out top among G8 countries if we compare other nation states, in their entirety, with England – excluding Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. But it is far from clear why those who claim to worry about “this crowded island” should compare England with the whole of Japan: excluding parts of Great Britain, but including the outlying, less populated islands of Japan. The UK as a whole is less densely populated than Japan as a whole; and England is less densely populated than Japan’s main island.

And once we shift from looking at the UK as a whole to looking at England, why stop there? If we break down the figures even further, to regional level, it quickly becomes clear that population density, and in particular increasing population density, is an issue mainly in the South East. Indeed, the Census reinforces concerns about a growing North-South divide. If we compare London and the South East with the North (which in Census terms includes the North East, North West, and Yorkshire and Humber), we can see that in 1991 they were pretty much the same size: 14.4 million and 14.3 million respectively. The population in the North then fell in the 1990s, and recovered in the 2000s, ending up 4 per cent larger at 14.9 million. By contrast, London and the South East grew throughout, at an accelerating rate, to reach 16.8 million by 2011: a rise of 17 per cent.

There are some exceptions to this North-South divide: in particular, Manchester was the third-fastest growing authority in the last decade. But most of the fast-growing authorities were in the South, and the great majority of areas experiencing shrinking populations were in the North. The fundamental driver here is economics, rather than migration or birth rates.

So far, mainstream opponents of immigration – including the Conservative Party – have embraced the 'crowded island' rhetoric but stopped short of policies to encourage birth control and assisted dying, the other major variables in avoiding further population growth. Instead we have policies aimed at reducing immigration – where government has any control over it – and increasing emigration: cutting the numbers of foreign students and skilled workers from outside the EU, attempting to stop the less well off half of the UK population from marrying foreigners, and attempting to turn working migrants into guest workers who go home after five years. But if we are to take seriously the concerns about “crowding”, we should be thinking much harder about how we plan for infrastructure, housing, and services, and more fundamentally, about our attitude to urbanisation – these are the really difficult questions, and they would remain even if net migration fell to zero.