Is there such a thing as an ideal level of population?

Rather than yet another debate about immigration, let's have a proper debate about population growth

Many commentators predicted that immigration would lose political salience during 2011. Back in the spring, I explained here why I thought this unlikely. Economic downturns tend to heighten concerns about migrants competing for jobs, and exerting downward pressure on wages. Public spending cuts tend to sharpen debates around migrants adding to the pressure on public services, social housing in particular, and around migrants claiming benefits. Beyond the economic aspects, there is no sign of any decline in the sense that immigration is undermining or threatening our "way of life". And while neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats are keen to talk about immigration, the Conservative leadership clearly believe it has a role to play in handling the right-wing media, as well as those on the right of their own party who are unhappy with life in coalition.

Immigration hasn't been all good news for the Conservatives. Last month, they had their first experience of a political crisis driven by operational failings at the border. At the same time the Office of National Statistics confirmed that net immigration was the highest on record. Three quarters of people were already doubting that the Conservatives would deliver their pledge to cut net immigration to tens of thousands, and their lead on the issue has fallen to 13 per cent, half of where it was last summer, and eroded further by the recent crisis.

Net immigration -- total immigration, including British citizens, minus total emigration -- was always a slightly quixotic choice for an overall political target. As the ONS explained, while immigration has been stable since 2004, net immigration has fluctuated with rises and falls in emigration, which is even harder to control. It is tempting to conclude that the Conservatives have given themselves an unnecessary political problem. But to understand why they did it, we need to go back to a couple of years before the election, when the pressure group MigrationWatch were exerting a lot of influence on the immigration debate, mainly through the right wing media, and also through their parliamentary wing Balanced Migration, fronted by Frank Field and Nicholas Soames. Their narrative relied heavily on the idea of Britain as a "crowded island", a clever tactic for reassuring moderates that there was "nothing racist about opposing immigration" -- it was simply a question of numbers. If crowding is the primary issue, then net immigration is indeed the logical target.

But this also explains why, as some on the right are making sympathetic noises about cutting ministers some slack on immigration, MigrationWatch are redoubling their campaign. When the ONS released the latest population projections, suggesting that the number of people living in the UK will rise from 62.3 million to the totemic 70 million figure within twenty years, MigrationWatch responded with an e-petition calling for the government "to take all necessary steps to get immigration down to a level that will stabilise our population as close to the present level as possible." Backed by the Mail and Sun, the country's two biggest selling dailies, the requisite 100,000 signatures were gathered within a week, and a parliamentary debate is expected in the New Year.

But rather than yet another debate over immigration (during which you can safely assume that many participants will use up a good share of their time complaining about the fact that they aren't allowed to talk about it), we should take the petition at face value, and actually try to have a debate about population, and ideally one which is informed by a deeper sense of the facts.

As I pointed out when the e-petition was launched, the latest UN figures rank the UK as the 39th most crowded out of 196 nations, and 140th in terms of population growth. Although many of the most densely populated are small islands or city states, Japan, South Korea, Belgium, and the Netherlands would all remain more densely populated than the UK even if we hit 90 million, never mind 70 million. MigrationWatch complained that I "carefully chose the UK rather than England" in making this comparison, but -- besides the obvious points that their own petition focuses on UK population figures that talking about this "crowded island" implies we are talking about Scotland and Wales as well as England, and that immigration policy is set at the UK level -- the real problem for MigrationWatch is that as soon as we move away from debating immigration and population at the UK level, why stop at England? Why restrict ourselves to a single conversation about a geographic entity whose regions and cities vary so markedly in these respects?

For example, northerners are among the most concerned about immigration, and also very concerned about population growth and crowding, despite having the slowest rate of population growth in England, with many towns and districts shrinking. The latest ONS figures show that the north-east has around 300 people per square kilometer, just above the UK average, and a third lower than the south-east. London is obviously the densest, at 5,000 people per sq km (though this is not particularly high either, by international standards or London's own history), and unsurprisingly, Londoners are among the most concerned about crowding. But despite this, and despite also having the largest number and proportion of migrants, attitudes to immigration in London are by far the least negative. A recent survey found 46 per cent of Londoners think immigration needs to be reduced, compared to 75 to 80 per cent nationally. (This is not just for the obvious reason that immigrants are themselves the most positive about immigration: the same survey showed that Londoners who identified themselves as "white British" were also significantly less likely to support cuts to immigration than "white British" respondents elsewhere in the country.)

London's population has been growing steadily since 1988 -- after shrinking for several decades in the middle of the last century -- and this year's London Plan forecasts that the city will grow by around 1.2 million in the next twenty years. On average, there is still a net outflow to the rest of the UK of around 10,000 a year, but this is far outweighed by two other trends: immigration from overseas, and birth rate. In 2009, around 150,000 immigrants arrived to live in London -- around a third of the UK total -- with a net immigration figure of around 30,000. London also had more than double its fair share of the country's natural population growth, of around 80,000.

Is there such a thing as an ideal level of population, either for the UK, or for the north, or for London? How far should government -- at national level, or in London's case, the Mayor's office -- try to intervene in that? If we believe that government should have a population policy, should it restrict itself to a "one-club" policy of managing immigration, or should it also intervene in family planning -- and what about the upward trend in life expectancy? Less controversially and probably more usefully, how we should plan to deal with whatever rises are expected? Finally, as we welcome the seven billionth member of the human race, how do these national or local concerns fit in with global questions around population growth, migration, urbanisation, resource scarcity, emissions, and so on?

These are some of the questions that will be discussed, in a London context, at a debate which IPPR is holding on December 12th as part of the London Policy Conference. The debate will be chaired by the New Statesman's own Mehdi Hasan, with expert contributions on migration, demography, urban planning, and economics, as well as the Barking and Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas. We hope this will stimulate similar discussions in the north and elsewhere, in the run up to the parliamentary debate in the New Year.

Matt Cavanagh is an Associate Director at IPPR. Follow him on twitter @matt_cav_

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.