The Daily Mail carries a rather typical scare story today about how the UK will have 80 million residents by 2050. I am not sure that given my health profile I shall be one of them. In fact I know that I shall not be, I am determined to end my years in a rather warmer climate. But the Mail, needless to say, gets its assumptions wrong in a rather desperate attempt to cosy up to its Middle England readership.
It predicts the end of the Green Belt. The population could increase by another 14 million or so without whole swathes of the countryside being built over. Enforce planning laws to protect the Green belt and it can be saved. Most of Britain is still fields. Some may have to be built upon. But equally there are large numbers of unused homes already in existence it is just that folks do not want to live in run down mill towns or the tower blocks of Newham. I cannot blame them. But if you have a system in place where a State is heading towards bankruptcy yet pays housing benefit to millions I cannot see why if the State pays your rent, why you should get to choose where you live. In fact you should not. So that means that all those unused properties (currently c 1 million) can get filled up fairly rapidly.
Secondly the Mail hints that immigration is the issue – this follows on nicely from a story yesterday about how 1 in 4 babies born in the UK are born to foreign mothers. But, as the Mail, correctly points out by 2015 there will be 5 million Britons aged 85 or over. By then 85 really will have to be the retirement age if the pension system as we understand it is to be financeable. But you are going to need an awful lot of younger people to a) clean up the wee in the old folk’s homes and b) create the private sector wealth needed to fund all the grey hairs etc. So in a sense a rising population is a good thing. Economies with an expanding demographic can grow. Those with a shrinking population find it almost impossible.
Since Europe faces a demographic timebomb ( we are all getting rapidly older) we are going to have to face up to this dilemma. Either accept more immigration or clean up your own wee in the old folks homes/accept a shrinking GDP and more poverty all round. That is a choice Europe will not face up to. But it has to. For what it is worth, I would allow absolutely unfettered immigration but with one proviso: no benefits of any kind for you or your family until you have paid taxes for five years. And to avoid charges of racism and to make sense of UK state finances I would apply the same rule to UK born folks too. Welfare should be a safety net not a lifestyle choice.
But what the Mail misses are the great variables here which all come down to the parlous state of UK Government finances. The UK continues to run a huge budget deficit and its debt/GDP ratio is rising rapidly. Decades before 2050 it will head past 90% (the point where it seriously chokes off economic growth) and then past 110% ( there is a run on your bonds as everyone knows the game is up). This is not an IF but a WHEN.
This offers up a few more variables.
1. Currently less than a third of the population are net givers to the state, the rest are net takers so bloated has our state become. As Britain slides towards bankruptcy, the State spends ever more and the rich are inevitably made to pay ever more the percentage who are net contributors will shrink and shrink. At some stage there will be material numbers of those in the minority who will regard this as unfair and leave/give up creating wealth. When will this inflexion point arrive?
2. Will the UK make dramatic changes to avoid its inevitable bankruptcy? Will it introduce the sort of welfare and pension reforms I advocate? Will the IMF force it as part of an “austerity package” to adopt such measures? When will this happen? I suspect that the answers to those questions will have a material impact on the demographics of this country?
3. The total population may rise to 80 million. I suspect it will not because of points 1 and 2 raised above. But what will the mix of that be? Who will be emigrating and who will the immigrants be? I suspect as the UK’s decline accelerates the emigrants will be exactly the sort of folk you do not wish to lose: entrepreneurs, the hard working, the young and the intelligent ( see Greece 2012). At that point who, at all, would actually want to emigrate TO Britain? I suggest that the answer will be nobody.
And so, for what it is worth, I would bet 5 Albanian Lekke that the UK’s population will not each 80 million by 2050. My greater concern is that it will not be increasing at all over between now and 2050 ( it will go up a bit in the next few years but then tail off and may reverse). At that point a country already teetering on the edge of an economic precipice will face negative demographics: a population not increasing but getting older. That, will of course, place ever greater strains on State finances and leave the chances of Britain growing its GDP at more or less nil. That is what the Mail should really be terrifying its readers with.