England and Wales population up

Spectators under umbrellas

We learn today that there are almost half a million more people living in England and Wales than official estimates had suggested. We are pretty good at counting babies and corpses, so we must have been under-counting net migration during the past decade.

It is not a wild underestimate - less than 1% of the total population. But the 480,000 individuals of whom the authorities were unaware will fuel arguments about immigration and how we best deal with an ageing population.

Three groups have expanded significantly during the past decade:

  • the number of people in their 90s has now reached 430,000
  • there are a million more 20-somethings
  • the number of under-fives is up 400,000.

Quite a few local authorities will be poring over the figures to see whether they might be able to argue for a bit more cash from the Treasury to deal with the impact of higher numbers.


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But the new data will also prompt fierce argument about the overall population level of our islands, as the Office for National Statistics confirms it will revise its population projections in the autumn.

As things stand, the ONS has suggested the UK population will be almost 72 million in 20 years time and 81 million by 2060.

Is the number too high? What is the optimum population for the UK and how would we achieve it?

The pressure group MigrationWatch UK has argued that the government should take whatever steps necessary to ensure numbers stays well below 70 million people. An online petition to that effect has achieved the 100,000 signatures necessary to trigger a Commons debate on the idea.

The petition warns that reaching the 70 million mark within 20 years "will have a huge impact both on our quality of life and on our public services".

Head count

  • UK population currently stands at about 62.6 million
  • ONS projects this will reach 72 million in 2032 and 81 million by 2060

The Optimum Population Trust goes further with proposals that government encourage couples to stop at two children and the introduction of a one-in one-out policy on immigration. "That way our numbers can be allowed to stabilise and reduce gradually to a lower, environmentally sustainable level," the organisation says.

But while there are many who would agree we live on a crowded isle, population control comes at a cost - social and economic.

Only last week the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) pointed out that restricting inward migration would mean either even bigger cuts to public services or hefty tax rises to pay for an ageing population.

In its annual report to ministers, it said in the medium term "higher inward migration would tend to increase tax receipts and not add much to age-related spending pressures, even whilst allowing for an increase in GDP from extra employment".

Spending on health, pensions and care costs are set to soar over the next half century and, if the government is committed to ensuring public debt does not exceed 40% of GDP, the squeeze on the working population becomes ever greater.

Assuming a net migration rate of 140,000 a year (still significantly higher than government target of under 100,000 and significantly lower than the current rate of 260,000), the OBR calculates that the additional cost of the elderly would require further spending cuts and tax rises worth £17bn.

Were the UK to maintain its current net migration level, the annual growth rate would increase form 2.4% to 2.7% and the fiscal consolidation required to bring national debt to 40% of GDP would be three times smaller at £4.6bn. (These estimates, of course, were made before Monday's census data was published.)

This graph from the OBR report demonstrates how the deficit is affected by different assumptions. The line marked old age structure assumes net migration of 140,000 but with higher life expectancy and lower fertility. Young age structure combines high migration with lower life expectancy and higher fertility.

Public sector net debt for demographic variants

A high migration policy has a sting it in its tail, of course. Assuming that many of those migrants stay in Britain beyond their working life, it will result in another population bulge hitting retirement in 40 to 50 years time.

Pregnant woman talking to a nurse Women in Britain are having more babies

As the OBR says, "higher migration could be seen as delaying some of the fiscal challenges of an ageing population rather than a way of avoiding them".

Nevertheless, on the OBR analysis, one can see that policies restricting inward migration of young workers to reduce the population will, in the medium term at least, put far greater pressure on British workers to support the elderly. Immigration will look a lot more attractive if it means fewer cuts and lower taxes.

Equally, the idea that politicians should advise couples how many children they should have would be deeply controversial in Britain. Decisions on childbearing have been seen as a matter for families, not government ministers. In any event, as can be seen from the OBR analysis, there are arguments for and against the UK reducing its fertility rate.

The ONS has been trying to understand what has been driving the big rise in the number of under-fives revealed by the census. As I reported last June, there has been a sudden and unexplained rise in the fertility rate over the past few years.

Although the increase in the number of women of childbearing age is mainly due to migration over the past decade, they still represent only a small proportion of the total and cannot explain the significant rise in total fertility rate.

Britain is living longer, seeing more foreigners arriving and having more babies too. Those three facts are pushing up our population and posing profound questions about the best way forward.


"No credible evidence has yet been published to show why a UK population of 70 million is preferable to a population limit of 50, 60 or 80million - or any other number," says the Migration Observatory think-tank based at Oxford University.

"We cannot base major policy decisions on a finger-in-the-air decision to aim for one round number or another. Policy needs to be based on evidence. At this stage there simply isn't enough to even debate what is at stake."

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    More immigration doesn't add to age-related spending? Talk about short-termist idiocy. When they get old are you going to encourage even more in? It doesn't take much intelligence to see that exponential growth is neither desirable nor sustainable, but apparently some people don't have even that intelligence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    "In its annual report to ministers, it said in the medium term "higher inward migration would tend to increase tax receipts and not add much to age-related spending pressures, even whilst allowing for an increase in GDP from extra employment".

    Doubtful - it will probably increase demands on benefits unless migrants are financially self sufficient - not the case at present!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I think we all know the BBC won't keep this thread open for long. Also, before too long there will be a difficulty in rating 'Please try later'. Somehow that always seems to happen on stories like these.

    Does anyone reading this story trust the census figures? Do you think everyone dutifully filled in his/her census forms in? Hardly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Population 'management' should be introduced. for example, child benefit for TWO (or three) children and no child benefit if you go above. (of course there will caveats for triplets, IVF, etc). If you want more kids, go to France, because the French give a pension bonus if you have more than 3 kids!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    So how do we plan for this?

    Build more social housing = No, Create more jobs = No, create a water grid = No, build renewable energy = No. Instead tax will be increased and spent on anything but the people who pay it. Unless something is done soon to address the above then we are doomed to fail and will need another big war to cull the population. Population is not the problem its the management.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    We will only 'need' the immigration if we wish to carry on policing and feeding the rest of the world. If we live within our means and build the economy we can afford to look after the elderly and disadvantaged in Britain. After we have sorted ourselves out we can then help others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Are we REALLY expected to believe the census figures?

    Would criminals, illegal immigrants, dodgy geezers, the transient and those allergic to officials fill in a census form? Particularly as this year there were few follow ups? Highly suspect figures.

    I would guess it could be several million more than recorded.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    They say we need more migrants because of the increasing population of elderly persons. Has anyone bothered to look at what percentage of our aging population are migrants themselves? I know of eleven migrant families on my own street (of about fifty houses) who have all brought in dependants of pension age and over, in one case six of them. Lame excuses won't change hard facts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    When the OBR has problems forecasting growth over the next few months I am not going to get depressed at this forecast over the next few decades. However the writing is on the wall. How is it migration has such benefits when we currently have 2.5M unemployed & a larger number economically inactive all of whom are a 'drain' on the public purse. Not surprisingly no full employment projections.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Where are the statistics showing us 'which' women in Britain are having more babies? Because we all know it isn't native Brits. The high birthrates from British born women are also due to immigration, as they are from recent migrant stock.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    There is a reason there is plus net migration into this country. A few to be precise, I think they call them NHS, JSA, Housing Benefit, Tax Credits etc etc.

    Just pop over, get on welfare and retire in an NHS home on a state pension.

    Meanwhile I'll have left the country and took my taxes somewhere else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The statistics relate to England & Wales, but yet again, as the London media just cannot help themselves doing, you conflate the concepts of England or England & Wales with the concept of the UK. Why couldn't you have asked what the optimum population was for just England & Wales? Or waited until figures for Scotland and NI became available before running the story? Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Importing younger people to support the older is nothing more than a ponzi scheme. The fix is not to add people but to restructure the finances so that each generation pays for itself. Indeed, depopulating the country will improve aspects of our lives that economic metrics cannot grasp.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    So now w can 'kick the can' on demographics too, using immigration. Just like the banking system, any scheme that relies on an infintely increasing supply of punters will eventually fail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Scares the hell out of me. The rate of change is shocking - I fear for the future of the UK


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