Hamish McRae: UK must meet challenge of a rising population for the economy's sake

Can the South-east stay an attractive place to live if it has to fit in, say, 10 million more people?

So we have to fit in nearly another half-million people into the country every year. Last year the population rose by 419,000 and this upward climb – mostly from a higher birth rate, partly from net immigration – seems to be climbing. There were more babies born in the UK last year than at any time since 1972 and that trend seems likely to continue.

Of all the drivers of economic growth demography is probably the most important. It helps determine the size of the workforce as well, naturally, as the size of the "dependents", the young people and retired whom that workforce has to support. That in turn is a key determinant of the size of the economy, for other things being equal, the bigger the workforce the bigger the economy. More people produce more goods and services but they buy more stuff too.

To give some feeling for what is going on I have put in the graph the present size of the population of the four largest European economies, plus some projections for 2025 and 2050.

These will not be right as to detail, for such projections never are. Indeed the estimate there for the UK's population in the middle of last year, 63.2 million, may already be an underestimate for last week's figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that it was 63.7 million. But they are broadly plausible and form a decent working assumption for what is going on.

As you can see at the moment the UK, France and Italy are roughly the same size while Germany is quite a bit bigger. Run forward to 2025 and the UK has pulled clearly ahead of France and Italy but is still smaller than Germany. Head on another 25 years and the UK is the largest European country by population and by a fair margin. We on the way up, pass Germany on the way down sometime around 2040. That does not necessarily mean that we would have a larger economy than Germany by then but the balance of probability is that we will.

Looked at in a global context these changes are quite small. For example the fact that India is likely to pass China as the world's most populous country in about ten years time dwarfs these modest population shifts within Europe. Nigeria is projected to top 400 million by 2050; Pakistan will be well over 300 million. By contrast Japan will decline from its present 127 million to 95 million. But from our own narrow perspective there are some obvious consequences.

One would be the rebalancing of Europe. We cannot possibly see the political shape of Europe in 2050, any more than one could have seen what it might be like in 1950 from the viewpoint of 1913.

We just have to hope that nothing as ghastly as the first half of the last century will happen again. But we do have to ask what the EU would look like were the UK to be both the most populous country and the largest economy. Indeed – and I do find this striking – even if Scotland were to leave the union, the remaining parts of the UK would still be the most populous European nation.

It would certainly be a different Europe, but it would also be a different Britain. One-quarter of the babies born in the UK at the moment are to mothers born abroad (think of Nick Clegg's children), while one-third have a parent born abroad. So already we are becoming more like the US, in that being British is for many people the result of a choice made by their parents to move to the UK.

But I think the question that most people will find hardest to get their minds round is this: how do we fit these extra people in? It is a question made all the sharper by the fact that the fastest growth of population is to the south-east of a line between the Severn and the Humber, with the fastest growth of all being in London itself.

People will react in different ways to all this but from an economic perspective these population movements are in fair measure a reflection of economic success. People migrate to a place because there are jobs there. If this creates problems, these are nothing to the problems of a declining population. Think of Detroit, or some of the medium-sized cities of Japan, where schools are shutting because there are no children and the old are looking after the very old.

So can the South-east corner of England remain an attractive place to live if it has to fit in, say, another 10 million people?

If you look at numbers it should be possible. London's population of 8.3 million is still below its peak of 8.6 million in 1939 but in another five years we should be past it.

The wider agglomeration is well past its previous peak. Yet the population density on London and indeed the UK is not that high. Inner London is about half the density of Paris or New York, and while the total urban area of New York is less dense, that of Paris is more so.

The UK's population density is lower than that of Belgium and the Netherlands, and (maybe a better comparison) Japan. It is a huge challenge: how do you make somewhere big nice? But it is a challenge that other places have responded to and from which we can learn. It needs sensible investment rather than an ideological approach, but that surely should not be beyond us.

Besides, what's the alternative? If we run a successful economy, people will come. So we have to make it nice for them. Do we really want a less successful economy? We have had a bit of experience of that and that was not a bundle of fun either.

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?