Ian Birrell: More people? We should be celebrating

Ignore the misanthropes. Population growth is a sign of economic success
  • @ianbirrell

So the population has shot up since the start of the century, yesterday's census figures showing that in England and Wales we share our space with 56.1 million other people. This is 3.7 million more than lived here a decade ago, unleashing froth and fury from the prophets of doom pushing their pet causes.

The rise is the fastest since 1801, when census figures were first published. That was also when Thomas Malthus was warning that the world could not cope with untrammeled growth in population. He was wrong then, just as Paul Ehrlich's predictions of imminent catastrophe in The Population Bomb were wrong nearly 50 years ago.

Population panics sound like common sense, so provide great fodder for cult leaders, best-selling authors and Hollywood directors. Self-evidently, they have also been wrong. There was much hysterical comment after the supposed birth of the world's seven billionth baby last year. In fact, global population growth is slowing, to the surprise of demographers, while food production is rising faster than population requirements, despite price spikes.

We should be delighted by Britain's population growth, since it is a sign of success. People are living longer thanks to advances in health care. This is why the proportion of elderly in our society is rising. But so is the number of under-fives, partly thanks to immigration, which will help a bit with the looming pension crisis.

Critics claim that Britain is over-crowded. They are wrong, whatever you might feel about being packed into a crushed commuter carriage. The UK is only the 39th most crowded nation; we could add almost 10 times the latest increase and still be less packed than the likes of Belgium or Holland. Our population growth rate is much nearer the bottom of the global table than it is the top. Furthermore, as the BBC's Mark Easton pointed out last month, only 2.27 per cent of the English landscape is built on.

For decades, shrinking London was seen as a clapped-out capital in decline. Now it has recorded the biggest population increase in Britain – and it is no coincidence it is our most successful region. It is also the least hostile to immigration.

Ignore the misanthropes: no country has a perfect size, and population predictions are always wrong. A rising population presents challenges for public services and highlights regional imbalances. But far better to have the problems faced by successful economies such as the US and Germany than those faced by the likes of Greece or Portugal, with falling populations, and their youngest and most able emigrating.

Twitter: @ianbirrell