Ignore the anti-immigrant hysteria, Britain is not full.

Claims that Britain's population will soon reach 70 million do not stand up to scrutiny.

Is Britain full? In the 1930s the Daily Mail campaigned against letting in German Jews on the basis that it was; since then the UK has accommodated more than 10 million extra people. But what was once a far-right trope is rapidly becoming conventional wisdom on both left and right. Even the supposedly impartial BBC now takes it as fact, if Monday's shockingly one-sided Panorama programme was anything to go by.

The programme's starting point was projections by the Office of National Statistics that, on current trends, Britain's population will reach 70 million by 2029, with two-thirds of the increase coming from new immigrants and their children. Such projections, the programme claimed, are accurate to within plus or minus 2.5 per cent.

Not so. The projection misleadingly extrapolates to the distant future the exceptional rise in immigration in the years before 2008, when the economy was booming unsustainably and the government has just let in workers from Poland and other east European countries. But now boom has turned to bust and the plummeting pound has devalued British wages, new arrivals from eastern Europe halved between 2007 and 2009, and many are going home. In the 12 months to mid-2009, immigration was already well below the ONS projection.

Previous projections have proved wildly wrong. In 1965, official statisticians reckoned Britain's population would reach 75 million by 2000. It turned out 16 million lower. And while short-term projections based on births and deaths may be reasonably accurate, longer-term estimates of future migration should be taken with a fistful of salt.

The programme's other premise was that a rising population -- due to immigration -- was overwhelmingly a bad thing. Except for a 10-second clip of me putting a positive case for immigration, the message was unrelentingly negative. Immigrants were said to contribute little to the economy and strain scarce resources -- seats on trains, hospital beds, social housing, living space, you name it.

This is misanthropic nonsense. Each of us contributes to society in all sorts of ways -- and immigrants are no exception. On the contrary, newcomers tend to chip in more than most. Research by Christian Dustmann and his team at University College London shows that newcomers from eastern Europe paid 37 per cent more in taxes than they received in benefits and from public services in 2008-09, while people born in Britain paid in 20 per cent less than they received. In other words, recent migrants are not a drain on the welfare state, they are helping to pay for it -- while many more migrants help to provide public services, as doctors, nurses or cleaners in the NHS, for instance. So if public services are failing to respond fast enough to a changing population's needs, blame the government, not foreigners. After all, if a Brit moved from Carlisle to Cardiff to take up a new job and there wasn't a place for their child at the local school, who would you blame?

Yes, a House of Lords select committee report chaired by the Conservative politician John Wakeham concluded that the economic benefits of immigration to the existing UK population were probably small -- and how could the great and the good ever be wrong? But it ignored the extra dynamism that a diverse mix of people sparking off each other brings, and all the new ideas, technologies, businesses and economic growth that this generates. Twenty-two of Britain's 114 Nobel laureates were born abroad; Tesco, Marks & Spencer, easyJet and many other successful companies were founded by immigrants and their children; and new arrivals of all cultural backgrounds are twice as likely to start a business as people born in Britain, as I explain at greater length in my new book, Aftershock: Reshaping the World Economy After the Crisis, which is out on 6 May.

Just look at Silicon Valley: Google, Yahoo!, eBay, YouTube, and many others, were all co-founded by immigrants who were not selected by some clever points system but arrived in the US as children. Anyone who doubts the contribution that newcomers make should ask themselves whether a global city such as London would be half as successful without a constant influx of new people from around the country and the world.

Immigrants' contribution to this country is positive and large. But surely they also strain scarce resources? Not necessarily. The main problem is not too many people, it's a lack of investment. Paris is more densely populated than London yet its excellent Metro is less crowded than our Tube. The Netherlands has more people per square mile than Britain, yet there is plenty of space on Dutch trains. Roads are clogged mostly because car ownership has risen as people have got richer; central London's congestion charge has unblocked them.

Social housing is scarce not because newcomers are taking all of it -- in most cases they are not entitled to it -- but because lots of homes have been sold off and very few new ones built. House prices are sky-high because demand has risen as people have got richer and more single people want to buy their own place, while planning restrictions limit the supply of new developments, and Britons are so addicted to property speculation that they are willing to borrow ever larger sums to get on the "property ladder".

Britain is not full up. Three-quarters of it is agricultural land. Contrary to the belief that it is about to be concreted over, building 3 million new homes at the government's target density would take up only 0.3 per cent of the UK's land area -- and much less if houses were built on brownfield sites. Nor is rising population density necessarily a bad thing. Most people in Britain choose to live in cities and suburbs rather than rural areas. The most densely populated place in the country is Kensington and Chelsea, which is hardly a hellhole. After all, that's where David Cameron chooses to live.

Philippe Legrain is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics' European Institute and the author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them (Little, Brown).

 

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.