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OPINION - Immigration will radically alter Britain by 2036 — and we should start talking about it

The UK population could rise from 67.0 million in mid-2021 to 73.7 million by mid-2036 (PA Archive)
The UK population could rise from 67.0 million in mid-2021 to 73.7 million by mid-2036 (PA Archive)

The really interesting thing about the projections for population growth from the Office for National Statistics this week is the extent it’s not being talked about. In case you missed it, the ONS said that, based on existing trends, the population of Britain is projected to rise by 6.6 million by 2036. Of this, 6.1 million is down to immigration.

And this, mark you, is net migration, not the overall numbers coming here. That’s projected to be around 14 million, offset by 7.6 million Brits leaving.

So, was there a national debate about this staggering increase, bearing in mind that it is likely, if anything, to underestimate the numbers based on past projections? Were the parties rushing to explain how they proposed to deal with these alarming numbers?

No and no. The PM seemed more interested in dealing with the not-terribly-critical issue of vaping, while Labour was far more exercised about whether or not it was spending £28 billion on greening the economy.

You know, 14 million people is an awful lot. I say the correct response to these figures is contained panic

Well, they should be bothered. And so should we. You know, 14 million people is an awful lot: four-and-three-quarter Waleses. Even six million net is getting on for an increase of 10 per cent in the population. I say the correct response to these figures is contained panic.

The pundit classes on the whole don’t do panic; the well-bred response to an unprecedented level of immigration is to say a) that the economy needs migration, particularly of skilled workers and b) current downward demographic trends suggest that we should welcome migration in order to address the population shortfall. Or as The Spectator’s cheerful leader put it this week, the figures are a reflection of UK success.

No rational person disputes that the country needs skilled migrants — who actually objects to the arrival of boffins from Japan to join the Francis Crick Institute, or disputes the contribution of the likes of, say, Carlos Acosta, the Cuban who galvanised ballet in Britain? Bring on more boffins, more Acostas! But that’s not who we’re getting.

Perhaps the most insanely annoying response to the figures is that we need immigrants because of population decline. Brits are reproducing at below the replacement rate of 2.1 children for each woman (though this varies; almost a third of British babies are born to immigrant mothers). So why not import from more philoprogenitive cultures?

Let me suggest gently why not.

One reason Brits are having fewer or no children — other figures from the ONS today show an inexorable trend towards having fewer children, later than previous generations — is that it is actually very difficult to get a house to raise children in. Of course there are other factors — not falling off the career ladder, feminism, eco-fanaticism — but high property and rental prices constitute the biggest single contraceptive mechanism in existence. The FT published an interesting statistic recently showing that whereas previous cohorts of young adults were likely to be married and raising children; this cohort is likely to be living with their parents.

The answer to this situation is not to import millions more people who need somewhere to live. That has one guaranteed result, to increase demand for homes and hence prices, and aggravate the procreation issue.

The Tiggers on immigration point out that the social care sector, for instance, desperately needs more people to care for an ageing population, so workers must be allowed to bring in their families. They ignore the reality that these families are not statistical marks on a spreadsheet who handily subsist on air. Real people need the NHS, schools, housing, all of which is a cost to the taxpayer. As the Migration Advisory Committee observes, “using the immigration system to recruit more care workers is almost costless to the Government compared to addressing the underlying pay issue, but fiscal costs such as those imposed on the education system are generally ignored.”

And as politics professor Matt Goodwin observes, of the two million people net who came here from outside Europe in the last five years, just 15 per cent came for work. Others were students, dependents, refugees or asylum seekers who may have entered the gig economy but didn’t come with a job offer. They certainly all aren’t skilled workers.

And what about gross immigration? People leaving and people coming in do not cancel each other out. People from other cultures, especially outside Europe, have different ways of life and language which may be enriching in small numbers but in millions makes for a less cohesive society, where we have less and less in common. Should we worry? Yes.

Melanie McDonagh is an Evening Standard columnist