Busting the myths about population increase

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‘Record levels of immigration lead to jam-packed England’, thundered the Daily Mail with all its usual subtlety and sensitivity of a crypto-fascist journalistic bulldozer on July 17th. Similar headlines can be found across the media in response to the recently-released 3.7million increase in the UK population over the last ten years (UK population, mind- the Mail in all its spittle-flecked keyboard-thumping we-told-you-so glory appear to have neglected the existence of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.) Undoubtedly, the population rise in concerning. It is a fact that immigration is responsible for a significant amount of the population increase over the last ten years. What however, is far more concerning than the statistics is the rush of voices interpreting them into a series of at best, mistaken, and at worst, racist foregone conclusions. Population rise automatically equals immigration-fuelled rise automatically equals massive problem. When the thugs of the EDL stormed through Bristol last weekend, Luton recently and plan to grace Waltham Forest with their alcohol-soaked bigotry in August, a salvo of anti-immigrant diatribe from the mainstream is the last thing we need, especially given that many of the conclusions about population are massive myths.

Here in Oxford, population has risen by 16,400 since 2001. It’s a 12.4% increase, the 44th highest in 326 local authorities, and we have yet to see any major structural crises. Sure, we have a grim record on homelessness, but that has been the case for many years. As with many other social problems, it’s much easier to blame the spectre of population growth than think long and hard about the mistakes made by the nation and successive governments in the domestic sphere, and actually put effort into changing them. Right to Buy, for instance; the popular housing policy that allowed homeowners to buy their council houses (in practice with a virtual gun held to head of local authorities by the Thatcher administration.) It succeeded in the embourgeoisement of a stratum of the populace, but in the long term contributed to housing market distortions, severely depleted the social housing stock and has led to hugely increased stat expenditure on housing due to the costs of paying extortionate private landlords- and now to an exodus of poorer people from London, due to housing benefit cuts. The routine contempt with which the homeless are treated with is another problem. A simple mass investment in the building of socialised housing would seem to be a solution. Less homeless people, jobs in construction and administration, no disruption to the environment since there are tens of thousands of hectares of brownfield land ready and waiting to be redeveloped, income for the state in the form of rent, and if we need to borrow to achieve this, it isn’t a problem since government bonds are currently extremely strong and contrary to what the deficit hawks would have us believe, now is a good time economically (and a fundamentally necessary time socially) for public investment.

Consumption also remains a large bugbear linked to population growth. That certainly isn’t something we can blame immigrants for. Everyone consumes. It is, however, something that can be pinned on the wealthiest who consume most. It will be some time before the UK and the world feels the effects en masse of overconsumption, but it’s a lurking issue. The other famous, time-honoured one is ‘they steal our jobs.’ It relies on what economists call the ‘lump of labour fallacy’, the assumption that the employment market is a zero-sum game. In fact, the influx of migrant labour after the A8 nations joined the EU filled considerable gaps in infrastructure and contributed to the boom. Where are the causes of job losses? Certainly not in a competition between labourers of different national origin, but as a result of an international economic slowdown, a systemic crisis coupled with the effects of a Coalition Government insistent on the axing of millions of jobs over the coming years. The link between immigration and job losses is nonsensical, as confirmed by an economists’ study reported in the Independent last year. The next closest issue is pressure on social and public services. Again, it is undoubtedly true that the more people there are, the more public services have to look after. Again, this has been distorted. Where is the Osborne axe falling? Public services. Instead of planning for population increase, which is where all the signs are pointing to, this government have chosen to reduce the capacity of public services, hamstring them and prevent them from operating effectively with not only raft upon raft of cutbacks but also a muddled scheme of bureaucratic privatisation. Public services, like employment, are not a zero-sum game. And let’s take another myth, the idea that ‘foreigners come here for benefits.’ If one really is willing to risk uprooting themselves to the UK for the £30-odd weekly that approved asylum seekers receive, or the £53/wk of jobseekers’ allowance, good luck to them. Even then, where are they spending that money? Food, clothes, energy bills, transport- i.e., straight into the British economy, ergo, contributing to growth.

The Guardian wrote a piece yesterday raising the next threat- an acute shortage of primary school places. Again, it’s worth looking at the fact that despite the Department for Education being aware of this approaching issue, what limited investment there has been over the last decade has gone into secondary schools. The introduction of academies and free schools muddies the water further. Yet the problem is now here and can’t be wished away, only faced and dealt with together as a population- and in this case, I’d suggest an immediate school-creation programme.  That raises another point, the crux of public service pressure in regards to population comes from a high dependent population- a large number of elderly people and young people. There’s little that can be done about that. If we closed the borders tomorrow, it wouldn’t stop the baby boom generation retiring and growing old. This is not by any means a blame game- we cannot exactly lambast the elderly for growing old after a lifetime of contribution to civil society, or the innocent young. Yet that is the point; the media and politicians of all the main parties seem to have sought to turn a natural social issue, that of population increase, which could be dealt with in a sensible and sober fashion, into a hysteria-raising blame game.

That all said, it is not even entirely true to suggest that population increase is migrant-fuelled. In London, the centre of population growth at 12% since 2001, the majority cause has been a domestic birth rate outstripping the death rate (perhaps the result of what was a world-class health service until Andrew Lansley took over its reins?) The migrants that are here as an aggregate pay in more than they take out. As the schools issue proves, one of the largest drivers of the increase in numbers is not mass immigration at all, but new babies from the domestic population. In fact, the Office for Budget Responsibility has stated that more workers, migrant or otherwise, would help reduce the national deficit. The increase is not the ‘highest ever’ in real terms- growth in the mid-19th century was higher, and as far as population density goes, Tower Hamlets, London’s most overcrowded local authority has about half the population density it did a hundred years ago, and the same density as Kensington and Chelsea, England’s wealthiest borough. Overcrowding is an issue, but as already discussed, a housing expansion programme would be perfectly viable, sustainable and profitable, and not involve plastering the entirety (or any more than about 3%) of the rolling hills and hedgerows of England. The bottom line is that we live in an imperfect world. And rather than descending into the politics of blame and falsely scapegoating migrants for social and economic problems (remember how that tends to end up?), we simply have to adapt to it, and rise to meet the challenges of the future in new ways.

Image credit: Daily Mail