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Friday 26 June 2015, Rob Lyons

UK population still rising? Good.

Neo-Malthusians who claim more people means more misery are just plain wrong.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the population of the UK rose by about half a million people last year. That’s roughly equivalent to a city the size of Edinburgh. The rise was due to two factors. First, net migration: 582,600 came to the UK and 322,900 left - a net inward migration of 259,700. Second, more people were born (777,400) than died (551,200), a net increase of 226,200. So the UK population is now estimated to be 64.6million.

Cue handwringing about how the country was going to be able to cope. Simon Ross, the chief executive of neo-Malthusian campaign group Population Matters, said: ‘We are all affected adversely by the rapid population growth of recent decades. Examples include pressure on housing and public services to the environment and climate change. It’s time we addressed the population problem, and find ways to live sustainably and happily in the long-term. As a nation we need to invest more in addressing these issues. Our emphasis should be on improved family planning and women’s education and empowerment, together with public information campaigns about the immense strains population and consumption growth place on our planet.’

Except that, as ever, this neo-Malthusian outlook is just plain wrong, just as the miserable Reverend Malthus was wrong in the late eighteenth century. Firstly, we are far from ‘adversely affected’ by population growth. On the country, it has come hand in hand with greater wealth, living standards and longevity. In the early Seventies, population worriers like Paul Ehrlich claimed we would see mass starvation and the collapse of societies as a result of rising population. Four decades later, the world’s population has doubled - yet people are wealthier and better fed than ever before.

Second, the pressure on public services is not coming from the number of people but the organisation of those services. To blame too many people rather than the state’s inability to organise itself is a dangerous cop-out from engaging in proper political debate about how schools, hospitals and the rest should be organised. It should be noted, of course, that the National Health Service is travelling the world trying to find more people to work for it. Immigrants have long been a mainstay of public service provision and long may that continue.

Third, to blame housing shortage on rising population is just plain bonkers. If we were building 300,000 homes per year and still not keeping up with demand, that might superficially make sense. But the UK is building less than half that number. We need to build up (more high-rises) and build out (by scrapping green belts). That would increase supply to meet demand and end the astonishing house-price inflation of the past few decades.

On every front, from claims that we are ‘running out of resources’ or unable to feed the extra billions of people expected in the next few years through to the claim that growing population will cause catastrophic climate change, the Malthusian argument is an insult to the ability of humans to adapt and innovate. It doesn’t even make sense in the context of the UK. While we are enjoying a growing population of relatively young people, other countries like Japan face a declining and ageing population, reducing their ability to generate the wealth required to offer older people the services they deserve.

Every person may be an extra mouth to feed. But every one of those mouths comes with one brain and two hands. We should welcome our rising population.

Rob Lyons took part in a debate on BBC Five Live with Simon Ross on Britain’s rising population. You can listen to the debate here (from 2:39:40).

London’s housing shortage and urban inequality is the subject of the forthcoming City of London Festival debate Skyscrapers and Slums on Wednesday 1 July at London & Partners, organised by the Institute of Ideas.

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