Britain’s booming population has reinforced London’s power

Allister Heath
NO other trend is as important as the population explosion since the Industrial Revolution: there are now more human beings than ever before. This holds true also for the UK: yesterday’s 2011 UK census results showed another huge rise. The population of England and Wales surged by 3.7m in the last decade – 7.1 per cent – reaching 56.1m, aged 39 on average. This was the largest rise in any 10-year period and compares with a 1.6m rise in 1991-2001. The UK population is now around 63.1m – up 4m. The stats came as a shock to the authorities: there are 476,000 more of us than they predicted, which helps to explain why our infrastructure is creaking at the seams.

Only four EU countries – Cyprus, Ireland, Luxembourg and Spain – grew faster than the UK. The number of households is up 7.5 per cent, 0.4 points more than the population, suggesting average sizes are stabilising (partly because kids are staying longer with their parents).

Twenty years ago, the North and London/South East had almost identical populations; today, the latter are ahead by a combined 1.9m. London’s population is 8.174m, up 11.6 per cent over the past 10 years and 19.7 per cent over the past twenty. The South East now houses 8.635m, up 7.6 per cent over ten years and 13.1 per cent over 20. But while London’s population has rocketed, its population of over-65s has remained static since 2001. All of these figures are crucial for marketers: more of their wealthiest, working audiences are now based in London and its commuter belt, while the UK counts more women and young people than expected.

The UK’s booming population also reminds us that GDP growth is a misleading indicator – what counts is GDP growth per person. The UK’s recent performance has thus been even poorer than previously thought.

The largest jumps in population were seen in Tower Hamlets (up 26.4 per cent) and Newham (up 23.5 per cent), with Hackney, Hounslow, Greenwich and Waltham Forest also growing strongly. These surges were fuelled by immigration and redevelopment of derelict industrial areas into residential properties (Tower Hamlets, home of the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf, is a case in point). The biggest jump in the South East was in Milton Keynes, up 17 per cent. Kensington’s population dropped 2.2 per cent – its properties are now more often used as part-time pads, and young families have been priced out.

Overall, 56 per cent of the increase was caused by immigration, with the difference between deaths and births accounting for the rest (though there too immigration played a part). I am relaxed about this and population increases more generally. Like Julian Simon, the US academic, I believe that human beings are the Ultimate Resource. Malthusians are wrong. With the right institutional framework, an increased population can be accommodated and lead to increased prosperity. But that doesn’t mean that there are not huge problems, especially when the framework is flawed: the government, which controls education, health and infrastructure, is hopeless at planning. We need a welfare system that encourages the integration of migrants. Those who move here must embrace their new country. There should be zero tolerance of extremists.

Immigration has partly been fuelled by the inadequate skills and attitudes of too many UK-born citizens: we need welfare and educational reform to increase the supply of domestic labour and thus reduce the demand for migrants. But the pessimists should remember this: there is something worse than a growing population, and that is a shrinking one.