The House of Commons will today debate the motion that the government should take "all necessary steps" to stabilise the UK's population "as close as possible to its present level". What the motion's authors really want, of course, is for the government to cut net immigration to zero. But in choosing to frame the debate around population growth, they have created a useful opportunity. The old line that "we aren't allowed to talk about immigration" is clearly no longer true, if it ever was, but population issues are genuinely neglected, in public debate and inside the policymaking community.
As the 2011 Census showed, there are three main drivers of our growing population: increasing longevity, increasing fertility, and positive net immigration. The second of these, fertility, is partly related to the third: migrants are more likely to be of child-bearing age, and foreign-born mothers have more children than those UK-born. But contrary to some of the fears of anti-immigration campaigners, the fertility gap is not widening but closing: the most recent figures show foreign-born mothers having fewer babies than they were, while the fertility rate of UK-born mothers continues to rise.
Even those who are worried by population growth would accept that slowing down improvements in healthcare (to reduce longevity) or in childcare (to reduce fertility) would be cutting off our nose to spite our face. All the more important, many will say, to focus on the third driver, immigration. But here too, the changes that would be necessary to cut net immigration to the level the motion calls for – and logically that means cutting it to less than zero, if fertility and longevity are to continue increasing – would have costs which many would regard as unacceptable if they thought about them seriously. Cutting net immigration to this extent would mean going far beyond immigration policy as it is generally understood: it would mean leaving the European Union, and telling British citizens they can no longer marry who they like, as well as closing our universities to foreign students. It might even require us, perversely, to dampen economic growth (despite our current troubles, increasing numbers are coming here from Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy), and pull back from Britain's traditional global role in culture and trade.
A more productive debate would focus not on overall numbers, but on how we best respond to a growing population, whatever its causes. The ageing society is notorious for being an issue that politicians of all parties have been slow to grasp. Rising fertility ought to be easier to deal with, but both the previous government and the coalition have fallen short, both in maternity services and primary school places. We also need to ensure that the funding mechanisms, which match public money with local population changes, respond far more quickly than they did over the last decade. And of course we need to deal with the growing shortage of housing.
These are very serious challenges; it is understandable if people think that until we come up with some solutions, we should not be making them worse. But it would be a shame if we slipped into the mindset of seeing a growing population as essentially a drain on resources. Even in the case of longevity this is a mean-spirited and indeed narrow-minded way of thinking about the issue. In the case of fertility and immigration, it is simply incorrect to see extra people purely as a burden, and not as current or future workers who will pay the taxes to fund public services and help reduce the deficit and public debt.
Some will argue that even if a growing population is a good thing in the abstract – or in big countries like America or Australia or Canada – Britain (or at least England) is a small country that is simply "full up". It is true that we are relatively densely populated; but it is also true that even if the UK population did reach 70 million, if it lived as densely as Londoners, it would occupy an area of just under 6,000km2 : less than 5% of England. At any conceivable level off population, it is how this population is distributed which matters far more than the overall number. Even in housing, where the challenge seems the most intractable, building enough to accommodate 70 million, far from concreting over the whole of England, would increase the developed area from 10% to 12%.
The same kind of answer applies to those who worry about population growth at a global level. Are we not adding irresponsibly to problems of climate change, or resource scarcity, which already look insurmountable? The answer, again, is that these problems are driven not just by overall numbers but by changes in the distribution of population – in particular, by increasing urbanisation – and by changes in patterns of consumption; and that the kind of breakthroughs we need to make, in achieving more efficient, responsible, and fair use of resources, would – if we succeed in making them – easily swallow up current levels of population growth across the developed world.
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