Page last updated at 21:11 GMT, Tuesday, 23 October 2007 22:11 UK

Impact of a bigger UK population

Evan Davis
By Evan Davis
Economics editor, BBC News

A busy street
Britain is not as densely populated as some other countries

Can we fit in 71 million people?

Believe the latest population projections, and we had better start preparing ourselves. On realistic assumptions, that's the population we can expect the UK to have by 2031.

Indeed, the official figures go much higher. We'll apparently be up to 84 million by 2081.

Can we take it?

My suspicion is that we can. Most people hugely underestimate the amount of "empty space" we have in our country.

Fly over the UK, and you see that human settlement does not fill up the UK at all. It accounts for something in the order of 15% of the land mass.

So physically, we could probably fit another 10 million people in - or 16% of the population - without toppling into the sea.

Dense populations

As it is, the UK is not the world's most crowded country. Belgium, Japan and the Netherlands are more densely populated than we are, and would remain so even if we had another 10 million people.

Indeed, if the UK had the population density of the Netherlands, it could accommodate 90 million people.

The British quite reasonably like empty land, and may prefer to keep it empty rather than turn it into a country like the Netherlands

And, believe it or not, if the UK had the population density of the quaint island of Jersey, we would actually accommodate another 120 million people on top of the 61 million we already have.

So, yes, I suspect we could accommodate another 10 million people.

But that does not mean we would want to.

The British quite reasonably like empty land, and may prefer to keep it empty rather than turn it into a country like the Netherlands.

And anyway, the population growth now being projected will not fill the empty bits of the UK (the Highlands and Islands, which could arguably do with more people).

It will fill yet more of the same places that are already among the world's most densely populated areas. England's population is projected to grow far faster than Scotland's.

Pressure on infrastructure

Making that worse, the projected speed of population increase is very rapid.

In the next 10 years, we will grow as much as we have in the last 30 years, and will in effect absorb the equivalent of the population of Ireland.

Migrant workers
Migrant workers are adding to the UK population

And, in 25 years time, we will have added the population of Belgium to the UK.

This can be done, but it won't be done very comfortably by simply squeezing more and more people into the existing infrastructure of houses, roads, shops, GP surgeries and schools.

Nothing will make the country feel more crowded than an unmanaged surge in population without proper account being taken of water, energy and food security, and new infrastructure.

In short, if we are going to accommodate the population now being projected, we had better start spending some money and building.

But before we do that though, it is worth asking how seriously we should take the projections now being made.

Statistical problems

Before we let people get too alarmed about this talk of 70 or 80 million people, and before we entice investors to buy property now, in anticipation of higher house prices as the population grows, there are a few things to bear in mind.

First, as the statisticians like to remind us, the figures published today are projections not predictions. Projections do not profess to tell us what will happen, just what would happen under various assumptions.

Secondly, the assumptions get more and more ridiculous the longer you extrapolate them.

So, while it is reasonable to assume the UK population will grow 0.6% a year for the next 10 years, or even for the next 25 years, it is absurd to carry on projecting that indefinitely.

(If you do, you can project the UK population reaching a billion by 2464. It's all a bit silly.)

And thirdly, the projections can be very wrong even on shorter time frames.

Baby boom

In the 1960s, demographers thought the baby boom would be a permanent feature of life, not a temporary one.

So they predicted there would be 75 million Britons by 2000. It didn't happen that way. The baby boom was just that - a boom.

You might even remember the fabulous film, Soylent Green, made in 1973, which depicted New York in 2022.

We may be experiencing a temporary inward wave that will soon fall back

It was so overpopulated that Charlton Heston had to step over the sleeping bodies occupying the staircase of his apartment block.

There was not enough food so people had to eat Soylent Green. I won't spoil the end suffice to say it was a great film undermined by poor demographic projections.

Today's projections suffer all the problems of previous ones.

In particular these ones are dependent on one assumption about migration, and annoyingly that assumption is both the most important and the least reliable.

Stemming the flow

Migration accounts for 70% of the projected population growth over the next few decades (taking into account the direct inflow of people, and also the indirect fact that migrants are often of child-bearing age, so push up the number of births).

This all means the overall projections are only as good as the assumption that net inward migration will continue at 190,000 a year, or roughly last year's level.

That might come to pass - it might be too conservative.

But equally, we may be experiencing a temporary inward wave that will soon fall back.

Or most likely of all, it may be that confronted with the prospect of such rapid population growth and an unwillingness to pay what it takes to prepare for it, the government decides to take further action to stem the inward flow.

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SEE ALSO
Migrants 'one eighth of workers'
17 Oct 07 |  UK Politics

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