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Paul Goodman: Rising population isn't in itself a bad thing for Britain

By Paul Goodman
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Perhaps I am misreading this morning's reporting of the latest Census findings, but much of it seems to suggest that a growing population is in itself a bad thing. Rising population in a developed country like the UK will indeed bring problems with it if:

  • Much of the growth is among older people who are not paying taxes themselves but taking taxes from younger ones (though most of these older citizens will previously have been paying taxes themselves, and have attempted to save despite the apparent best efforts of government to discourage them from so doing).
  • Much of the growth is driven by high and rapid levels of immigration, which are bound both to pressurise public services and strain integration and cohesion - especially if voters haven't endorsed these levels directly, and they are concentrated in particular areas of Britain.

Both of these conditions certainly apply in Britain today.  Not much can be done about the growth in older people, and nor should it: it is a good thing to have a generation of older people who live longer and are more fit than the previous generation of older people.

Quite a lot can be done among immigration.  For example, Nick Boles has proposed that non-EU migrants pay a surety deposit, that some EU migrants should be told to leave Britain, and that no immigrants should be eligible for social housing until five years after arrival.

None the less, rising population in itself isn't a bad thing for Britain.  If you don't believe it, then think about what a falling and ageing population over the medium to long term would imply for the country:

  • The further raising of the age of eligibility for the state pension.  I am not sure that this prospect would cheer those who expect to receive it at 66 or so, and there would obviously be a knock-on effect on retirement.  The same media outlets that are currently carrying the headline We Can't Take Any More would instead carry the headline: Work Till You Drop

- and/or -

  • Higher taxes for the working population.  If the age of eligibility for the state pension is not to be raised further (and payments to better-off pensioners - such as the winter fuel allowance/free bus passes/free TV licences - are to stay because of voter pressure) it follows that in the event of growth rates lower than those of the 1993-2007 period past taxes on the working population will rise further

- and/or -

  • Further pressure for more immigration.  If the age of eligibility for the state pension is not to be raised further and growth doesn't match that of the 1993-2007 period and taxes for the working population are not to rise even further than they would otherwise do, government will come under pressure to increase immigration levels.

All this is happening to some degree anyway.  The age of eligibility for the state pension is being raised.  Taxes on the working population are rising.  And there is pressure for more immigration not only from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but from business and government.

These tensions are blue-on-blue as well as blue-on-yellow.  If you are not persuaded that falling population would make these problems even worse, consider the list of areas in Britain which population is indeed falling.

Screen shot 2012-07-17 at 11.27.41
These areas are not a model for the future of the country.  So what can be done to boost growth the working population if more immigration is not to take up the strain?  The answer lies with the familiar trinity: family - schools - work.

  • Schools.  Build on Michael Gove's school reforms.  The Education Secretary evidently has no personal opposition to selection by ability or schools making profits.  This is the natural next stage of his schools revolution.
  • Work.  The IDS/Grayling reforms are only half of the picture.  There have to be jobs for the jobless to take - especially in Britain's poorer areas.  Garvan Walshe has mooted corporation tax holidays/lower-flatter taxes/local bonds for infrastructure on this site.

All this isn't the answer to the adverse consequences of the social change that Garvan described, but it would be a start.  At any rate, rising population isn't in itself a bad thing for Britain.


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