The population debate is based on what 18th-century sceptics had to say about it

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DON FLYNN

The advocates of strict immigration controls have been on a rollercoaster ride in recent weeks as more and more evidence has accrued about the damage done to UK plc. by the sort of measures they espouse.

The negative effect these policies have had on the capacity of the higher education sector to attract foreign students has been extensively reported, particularly in the context of the crisis that has descended on London Metropolitan University.

But alongside this there are also the damaging assessments of the effect of immigration measures on attracting foreign investment, the subject of a report from UK Trade and Investment back in July, and the complaints emanating from big players in the hospitality sector trying to win a bigger share of the global tourism market.

 

But never mind all this: the immigration hardliners have what they think is a solid fallback position for their arguments which we see once again in the Parliamentary debate today.

The issue which anti-immigration hardliners Nicholas Soames MP (Conservative) and Frank Field MP (Labour) will be pushing on this occasion is their concerns about the upward trend in the UK’s population.

The national census figures published last month suggest the country hitting the 70 million figure sometime before 2030 if the current trend continues.

Messrs Soames and Field’s concerns about the rise in population mirror anxieties in the wider population. The time for the Parliamentary debate itself was secured by the success of the immigration-sceptic think tank Migration Watch UK winning the backing of more than 100,000 members of the public for a petition it launched calling for a halt to population growth back in October 2011.

We can expect the backers of this motion will trade on the commonsense of the epoch, to the effect the country is overcrowded and congestion in our cities and in the use of our public services comes from the larger numbers of people pushed into an inevitably finite area.

If things go on as they are, as Migration Watch tells us, we will need to build seven cities the size of Birmingham to accommodate all the newcomers who will be arriving over the next decade and a half. This is nonsense.

Cities in the UK often do seem overcrowded and there is pressure on scarce resources, like public transport systems or housing, which is easy to blame on population growth. But our towns and cities have given the appearance of having too many people at other stages in our history, such as the early decades of the 19th century when overcrowding and insanitary conditions were the stuff of legend. But this was a period when the population of the country hovered around the 10-20 million mark – a third of what we have today.

At the turn of the 18th and 19th century the early pioneers of economics, with the Reverend Robert Malthus to the fore, arrived at some very gloomy prognosis about what would happen if population exceeded the 9 million mark. The increased demand for limited resources would cause an uncontrollable escalation of hunger with famine and disease following in their wake.

They were famously wrong in all these predictions, with the rapid increases in population over the next 200 years being more strongly associated with increases in productivity and the supply of goods and services needed to overcome dire want coming from the increase in the number of hands that were available to do the work.

As our populations have grown we have become, paradoxically from the standpoint of those stuck in the doomster frame of mind, better fed, better housed, wealthier, and generally able to look forward to longer and healthier lives all around. Maybe Malthus just got the timescale wrong and the crash he predicted lies at the point of the 70 million population rather than the 10 million he was dreading. But what is the evidence that the brick wall we are supposed to heading for exists in reality rather than just in theory?

In terms of the physical space available, the British Isles seem to have a very safe margin before overcrowding becomes a real issue for concern. With urban sprawl still only accounting for around 9% of the land UK mass, and with housing accounting for just over 1% of the total, it seems fairly clear space is not the main issue here.

The Parliamentary debate will provide an opportunity for the anti-immigrant lobby to crawl back some of the terrain they feel they have lost on in the public debate in recent months, as the evidence piles up that controls and restrictions are more likely to make us poorer than better off. They will insist the problems of major foreign currency earners like higher education and tourism can be set aside against the frightening fact large numbers of people are living in the UK. Better to take the hit in terms of lower growth and reduced competitiveness for UK companies, than to allow the population to rise to 70 million.

Hopefully there will be enough MPs around today who will dig their heels in against this dangerous scare-mongering. The issue is not population as such, but whether we organise our affairs to improve the standard of life for citizens, with the absolute numbers of people residing in the UK being absolutely secondary to that.

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