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Rapid population growth requires strategic thinking in Whitehall and wider public debate

  • The UK’s headcount is set to increase by nearly 10 million over the next two decades, enough to populate Greater Manchester more than three times over
  • This will require more than 4 million additional homes, or one every three minutes throughout that period, as well as new hospitals, schools, roads and other infrastructure
  • Government thinking has so far been siloed and piecemeal, and the complexities of the debate poorly understood and explained

The government should create a new Department of Demography to coordinate its response to Britain’s rapidly growing population over the coming decades, a new Civitas pamphlet urges today.

Despite the enormous challenges that the forecast growth in numbers will present, successive governments have so far failed to think strategically about the issue or to engage the wider community in the debate.

The population of the UK is projected to rise by 9.7 million to 74.3 million by 2039, according to the Office for National Statistics. This is equivalent to three and a half times the population of Greater Manchester.

This would result in a 14% increase in the UK’s population density, from 268 to 305 people per sq. km. But most of this change is taking place in England in particular, which alone already has 420 people per sq. km., forecast to rise to 486 by 2039. Germany, by contrast, has 229 people per sq. km. and France has 105.

In Britain’s Demographic Challenge, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts considers the potential impact of this population growth on the economic, social and environmental development of the UK.

This will require 4.25 million more homes, or one every three minutes between now and 2039 (assuming current rates of housing occupation). It will also create the need for new hospitals, schools, employment opportunities, leisure facilities, roads and general infrastructure.

Lord Hodgson warns that because demography is such a potentially sensitive issue and one with a very long lead-in period – many policy decisions taking a full 25 years to reach full impact – successive governments have put off decision-making.

Lord Hodgson warns that there is currently a lack of cross-departmental planning to deal with these challenges, which are addressed piecemeal by different parts of Whitehall and various non-governmental bodies.

“All of these bodies do valuable work but it is work from the bottom up – reacting to a set of possible scenarios that might or might not reflect the real range of possible outcomes. It appears vanishingly little effort has been made to look at the challenges from the top down and to unravel the tangled threads of claim and counter claim,” he writes.

He calls for a Minister of Demography to work across Whitehall in providing a strategic framework for evaluating and addressing the impact that population growth will have. This minister would also lead and inform a debate beyond Whitehall around the complexities of the issue – particularly involving local government, as population growth will be most keenly felt at a local level – and be responsible for ensuring the creation of accurate statistics, the absence of which have bedevilled discussion in the past.

“The Department should undertake research into the interaction of the various impacts of population change – particularly the non-economic ones. Are there points at which population density is likely to pose a threat to social cohesion? What is the overall impact of each one of us – spatially, environmentally and economically? How accurate are the claims and counter-claims of economic benefit? How fairly are the proceeds of this economic benefit, if any, shared? The objective would be to move the public debate beyond a series of short term localised preoccupations to a wider consideration of what may lie ahead for the country as a whole.”

Lord Hodgson argues that the debate about population growth should look beyond the economic prism and consider quality of life arguments too, and consider whether too rapid an increase in population may undermine the ‘social contract’ that underpins a level of support for public services.

“Wherever one stands in relation to the issue of population growth it is surely right that the risk-reward ratios of these various issues need to be explored and debated. The people of this country are entitled to have laid out before them the range of challenges and opportunities that demographic change will cause.

“Given the apparent scale of that demographic change and the long-term impact of any policy decisions such a debate should begin sooner rather than later.”

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts is a Conservative peer and former MP. His particular focus, in addition to trade, industry and finance, has been the charity and volunteer sector. He has authored a number of reports for the Government on the sector – most recently on the regulation of third party campaigning. He is an officer of several all-party parliamentary groups and is currently chairing a cross party House of Lords committee looking into citizenship and civic engagement.

Britain’s Demographic Challenge: The implications of the UK’s rapidly increasing population

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