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 35.

    The problem is not immigration per se. The problem is, when the global market switches off, how are we going to feed everybody? do not live in a town or city when that happens!

    20 millions is sustainable any more is cannibalism.

    Where is wotw

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    The rise in the population really worries me.we have not got enough houses.The NHS and schools are under great strain.more traffic.more pollution.damaged to the environment.Could someone please tell me what problem can be solved nationally or locally if we have more people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Looking at all this rubbish about too many immigrants - has anybody been to Spain, Malta or Cyprus recently? You might be surprised how many UK citizens you come across ... and, yes: most of them pensioners who do not contribute to the local income tax. You can't have it both ways, I'm afraid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Being an immigrant I completely understand settling in the UK is a privilege and not a right but one must understand the rules governing immigration and settlement were put in place by the government which encouraged immigration to address the problems the last census highlighted. Britain and its migrants have both benefited from immigration and now it is time to reduce it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    The government should put sustainable lifestyles on a higher priority than GDP. Dense population increases the strain on all resources, energy, water, food, petrol and increases traffic congestion, demand for education, healthcare etc. In 1900 the population was 38 mil, now we have 55% more people but not 55% more land mass. Govt should admit we have a population problem and raise awareness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    The household formation rates that were provided by the Office of Budget Responsibility were far too low because they failed to take into account the huge rise in net migration (migrants need housing). This has led to massive rises in house prices and rent yields. Unchecked population growth also lowers jobs density and diminishes the quality of our public services. We are being betrayed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    This is basically a question of short-term versus long-term benefit, with the long-term benefit of a lower population greatly exceeding the short-term benefits of continued immigration, namely extra tax revenues and help with looking after the elderly. However, the latter also has dis-benefits in terms of additional stress on housing supply and social disruption.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Britain is already over populated. A one in one out policy is despeartely needed and the one in needs to be someone with skills that we need and not just anyone. I think a goal of 50 million is desired so we do not have to eat up more green space/ countryside that is so important to our tourism revenues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Where are all these babies coming from? I know stacks of people in their 20s and 30s- and perhaps a third or less have kids. Would it really be so taboo for the state to declare that you only have kids if you can afford them, or at the very least limit child benefit to 2 kids? I predict a very "interesting" next 10 years for Social Services, Police and other services.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    What does your comment mean - that there will be less to go around, and therefore things might get downright nasty?
    I don't want to sound like an idealist, but the right categories are growing - immigration & kiddies. The elderly, in fact, are not keeping up. Also, if there is enough mutual care (love if you will), the country will be wealthy beyond its means.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    It isn't clear why politicians should regulate demography. Is this a law of nature? Does government serve people or do people serve the state? How is it that we are moving towards a global economy without global citizenship? By what right do we say 'pull the ladder up, I'm aboard'? and even if we say it, why should anyone wanting to come here take us seriously?

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    The economy exists for the benefit of the people, not people for the benefit of the economy. The population of this country should not be determined by what the economy wants. In a free society the economy and government should have to fit in with what the people of that society choose. Instead we have social engineering. What happened to our democracy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Obviously immigration to support an ageing population is a Ponzi scheme that will unravel eventually..it's worth pointing out also that a lot of working age migrants will bring extended family over who will be unproductive/elderly and who will in a lot of cases have long-term health issues that will put more pressure on the NHS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I find the results of this report to be very ominous. Britain's membership in the UK means essentially that there is little or no control over immigration and the changing ethnicity and size of Britain's population, together with increasing pressure on resources poses great social and economic risks.
    I believe that structural changes must occur and that immigration must be halted..

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Yeah, get more in to ease the tax revenue problem for a few decades and then what, back to the same situation but bigger. But for all the shouting HMG cant stop EU citizens coming here if they want so there is very little control in reality

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I think these statistics look optimistic e.g. Immigrant population is outpacing aged; immigrant population is of working age & therefore pay taxes. Is this not needed for funding the elderly?
    Even the number of under 5s seems optimistic; these will enter labour force & also become taxpayers.
    Sometimes, I think the media just likes to stir the pot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Not wanting to live in a country full of geriatrics is probably the most persuasive case for immigration I can think of. However I'm concerned that Mark Easton seems to have become a subtle (or not) propagandist for population growth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    'women in Britain are having more babies' clearly the message about how different the world will be in 20, 50, 80 years time is not getting through to theses women. They are committing their children (and later adults) to a life a lot less pleasant and plentiful than their's has been. It may even be downright nasty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Of course controlling population growth is important, possibly the best way to do this is to reduce the amount of "life preserving" medications for people with terminal illness, after a certain point go for pain relief only. Emergency Contraception needs to be more avilable, Benefits should only be claimable on 1 or 2 children. Ban IVF - adopt instead. I know this wont be popular!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

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

    Don't confuse legal migrants with asylum seekers, or illegal immigrants are invisible to census and benefits. Asylum seekers are temporary. Legal migrants are people who come here to work, and they pay their way by paying tax.


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