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 115.

    #108. Herbert Sheep

    Thank goodness somebody is awake to the problem, though 17.5 might be an underestimate.

    One day the population will drop to what is sutainable, and we have a choices. We can control that decline or we can have it imposed upon us. The way things are heading it will be imposed by nature, and nature, as we often see, can be very unforgiving.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    I cannot accept ever growing cities just because people want to come to the UK for an easier life in than they were having in their own country. The constant strain on public services, pollution and never ending chipping away at the countryside. At what point will it stop? When the south east/Midlands/North are one big urban sprawl?

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    The prediction of 70 million is really worrying the infrastructure road and rail networks are creaking now under the current rapid increase packed trains standing for long periods traffic jams and these arteries take time to build and improve. The problem is our politiians never have to stand on a train commuting or sit in a traffic jam if they did they make look at tax rebates for the childless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    A nice piece, there are indeed profound questions to ask, the answers we as a nation come up with to them will be the measure of how our society will be seen by by future generations.
    The can has been kicked about as far down the road as it can be, hard choices with no easy answers (Exit EU or zero migration are fatuous solutions), our system is a Ponzi scheme , we need to break the cycle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Thanks unlogic and I agree we got to face up to it. It will conflict with the existing system which encourages population growth to increase demand, supply, economic growth etc... Policies with greater focus on productivity and GDP per capita and not growth per say need to compliment policies for population reduction. What progress is being made under the existing system - for the very few?

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    The current UK population is unsustainable and the forecast growth (0.7% per year according to Population Matters) of up to 71.6million by 2033 will only add to the problem if it proven correct.This is not even mentioning increased pressures on food supply,as the UK already imports about 80% of its current supply (quick maths puts that we can only support 20% of the population or 12million people)

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    I look forward to the day in my life time when the human population passes the 1 trillion mark, the greater the demand on resources, the greater the necessity for invention to create a better life for humanity on and off this 3rd rock from Sol.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    This is not about racism it's purely about numbers. The optimum sustainable population of the UK is about 17.5 million (Population Matters). It's time for the government to act on immigration and stop paying people to breed. We have to bite the bullet and ride out the aging population blip - it will be worth it for future generations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    While from a sustainability point of view stabilising the population (of the world never mind Britain) may be a desirable thing, if we want to achieve it we will have to face up to some unpleasant truths. The retirement age will have to rise and benefits will have to fall/taxes rise. Unfortunate, but unavoidable, unless we want an indefinitely increasing population.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    So this is progress? Not only a cap on population must be a policy for government to protect what quality of life, our countryside and wild life is left but policies to reduce population must also be introduced. I'm tempted to say our population is reaching plague proportions resulting in more consumption of our already depleted resources. The tide must turn on population growth world wide.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Money earned and spent in the UK goes round and round. State pensions sent abroad are dead loss to the UK economy. Similarly immigrant earnings sent abroad to families. Nobody checks to see if an expat is still alive until he reaches over 100years old! Pension credit is claimed by expats that keep a UK address. UK is haemoraging cash at a fantastic rate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    If the general population is on average 'older' over time, to the point of not having sufficient younger worker's to pay into the system to pay for Social Security. Simple solution, every 20 years, have a govt created artificial baby boom. Then there would always be sufficient younger workers to pay for our old age pensions when we required! It is Logical, something beyond our kindergarden cabinet

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    91. Th1nk-about-it
    "the statistics I've seen show that people over 60 use half the health budget. That's their main cost."

    So 20% of the population use 50% of a £105 billion budget? Makes the 10 billion from crime seem like a drop in the ocean

    "They use 1% of the education budget." That's because they've used it earlier in their lives!

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    I find it Bizarre and ODD that during times of Economic BOOM we welcome Immigrants and Migrants with OPEN ARMS, not enough can come to do the jobs we do not want to do as they are too below us.
    BUT in times when the economic cycle has fewer jobs as we have the ONLY govt in the world that 'refuses' to invest in our nation/economy - we say and treat the immigrants are parasites!

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Sounds like good news to me. The increasing number of young people will help to sustain our economy in the future (and pay our pensions). Increasing life expectancy has got to be a good thing. Much better to have a growing population, including immigration of motivated young people, than the declining birth rates and aging population of Italy, Spain, eastern Europe and even China.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    The UK has twice the arable/agricultural/livable land than Japan.
    Japan with half the amount of livable land the UK has, has a popuation over DOUBLE that of the UK.
    So if we in the UK, live to the population density of Japan we could easily have a population of 250million people.
    If we had high Urban density living and expanded from 2% of urbanisation to 10%, we could have pop of 1 Billion+.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    "The ONS has been trying to understand ....a sudden and unexplained rise in the fertility rate over the past few years."

    The reason for the increase is obvious - high rates of child benefit/tax credits mean that the best way for young people to get a pay increase is to have another child. Three or four children funded via benefits pays better than some full time jobs

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Migration Observatory: "No credible evidence has yet been published..."

    Then get off your backsides and do the research. We urgently need to know the number of people the UK can sustain for the next decade, next hundred years, next 500 years. The number has to take in the possibliliy of wars, a bit of climate change, the running out of fossil fuels and collapse ot transport.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    We are missing the point that whilst the general population, to judge from comments I hear, do not want any further immigration. The politicians and businesses want further immigration, because it hold down or reduces wage costs. A stable population with very little immigration normally holds out for better terms and conditions. In other words it reduced the profit margin of the fat cats !

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    There are reams of evidence including the 5 volumes of peer reviewed data in the Millennium ecosystem assessment and the People and Planet report from the Royal Society that the UK cannot support it's population sustainably. The UK's self-sufficiency rating is 25.8 per cent, meaning that it could only support a quarter of its population, about 15 million, if it had to rely on its own resources!


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