Crammed Britain: And why no politician is being honest about the devastating consequences of immigration

The great election TV debate last Thursday night was launched with a question on the vexed issue of immigration, a subject that until then had been barely touched on by the three party leaders.

But in the ten minutes allocated to the subject, there was one figure conspicuous by its absence from the lips of Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg: 70 million.
That's the number of people who our national statisticians expect will populate the UK by mid-2029.

If they are ultimately proved right, this will have huge implications for public policy, as the Mail showed last Saturday with the story of the anguished letter to the three party leaders from two independent councillors in Peterborough about the impact of immigration on schools, housing and hospitals.
To that extent, the discussion about immigration in the leaders' first TV debate was just a start.

The UK's population is currently estimated to be just over 62 million. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), 68 per cent of the growth to 70 million will come from immigration (both from the number of new arrivals as well as the increase they make to the birth-rate). We are on course, apparently, for eight million more people over just two decades.

However you carve up the rough equivalent of this rise - one big city the size of London, eight cities the size of Birmingham or one city the size of Bristol every year for the next 19 years - never in our history will we have we grown by such numbers, nor over such a sustained period.

England would take 90 per cent of this growth.
Some argue there are still vast open spaces where all the new houses, schools, hospitals, railways lines, roads, shops, reservoirs, waste disposal facilities and power stations that will be needed could be built. Yet, bar the island of Malta, England is already the most densely populated country in Europe.

So where will everyone live?

Judging by the Government's growth plans, most of the extra people will live in an ever-widening belt stretching diagonally across Britain: from Dover in the South-East, through the Thames Gateway, on up north of London into the south, east and west Midlands, then into west Cheshire, Warrington, the Mersey heartlands and Greater Manchester, and finally to Blackpool.

Nor are the North-East and West Country spared - only the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales. Literally, dozens of towns and cities will grow.
The Communities Department's sales pitch for these 'Growth Areas' and 'Growth Points' brims with excitement: 'Renaissance Bedford', 'Opportunity Peterborough' and 'Cambridgeshire Horizons'.

Government plans appear to extend only to 2021. By then, England's population is projected to have increased by 4,235,000. So where will the remaining 2,965,000 go by 2029?

The truth is that land released for development is very scarce. This means we cram houses with the smallest dimensions in Europe into what little there is of it

On the roads, the Department of Transport forecasts the total time lost by commuters due to congestion in England will rise from 400 million hours today, to 700 million by 2025.

By 2030, the number of passenger journeys will have nearly doubled to two billion, says the Association of Train Operating Companies.
Rush-hour Tube travel in Central London is already a grimly intimate experience. Over the next two decades, as the capital's population heads for an extra 1.3 million, we will have to learn to like our fellow commuters of all shapes and sizes even more.

It took 57 years for our population to grow from 50 million in 1948 to 60 million in 2005. Yet the ONS calculates it's going to grow another ten million in less than half that time.

But, according to Immigration Minister Phil Woolas, there is no need to worry. Our national statisticians 'will be proved wildly wrong', he told me confidently.
He must hope that he is right because the number of new households forming every year is nearly double the net additions from new build and conversions.
While most of these extra homes will be needed because more people are living longer or alone, 39 per cent of new households will be formed because of immigration, according to Government figures.

Some Labour and Conservative politicians want immigration to be brought into balance - meaning the number of new arrivals doesn't exceed those emigrating. If that was achieved, the housing crisis could be largely solved by 2020. But that is not going to happen because British industry has become so dependent on migrant skills and our universities so dependent on foreign students' fees.

When I interviewed Mr Woolas, he was clearly irked by the findings from the official statisticians. Indeed, last year he accused them of being 'sinister' for publishing figures showing that one in nine UK residents were born abroad.

Woolas complained that the Labour Government was being blamed for 'whipping up anti-foreign sentiment when it was the independent ONS who are playing politics'.

A fortnight earlier, the ONS had published figures showing that while the number of foreign workers had increased by 175,000 to 2.4 million, the number of British workers fell by 234,000 to 27 million.

Certainly the Government is seeking to tighten up on two major sources of immigration, work permits and students, with its new points-based system (under which migrants can gain points towards their entry visa application through their skills, jobs and qualifications).

But we won't know the real impact of this policy until November, when the ONS calculates the net migration estimate for 2009.
Since 1997, net migration has added more than half the four million increase in the UK's population.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Government is impatient to persuade voters it has got immigration under control and is bringing down the numbers.

Woolas told me there had been two successive annual falls in net migration. Yes, it is true there was one in 2008 - but we don't yet know about 2009.
Gordon Brown made the same claim a few days later, this time citing the Government's source for the second fall in 2009.

However, not only did this turn out to be a mid-2009 estimate, it also led to the head of the Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar, reminding Mr Brown by letter that the second fall he claimed for 2009 was not comparable to the first fall in 2008.
This means that, contrary to ministers' claims, there is no firm evidence yet of two successive annual falls in net migration - just one. And that is not evidence of a falling trend, since net immigration figures have gone up and down over the past eight years.

Even so, during Thursday's TV debate, Mr Brown still insisted net migration 'is falling. It's fallen three years ago, two years ago and it's falling this year.'
This is not the first time the Prime Minister has misused statistics in claiming immigration is continuing to fall.

Last November, he said 'we must continually remind ourselves' that immigration 'is not rising but it is falling'. He claimed that net migration in 2008 was down 44 per cent from 2007.

In fact, ONS figures showed the fall was 30.4 per cent - and most of that was accounted for by Eastern Europeans returning home, a change that had nothing to do with Government measures.

So what do the most up-to-date immigration statistics actually tell us? Fewer work permits were issued in 2009 than in 2008, partly offset by an increased number of their dependents. The number of spouses and fiances joining their partners has also reduced a bit.

On the other hand, at 278,385 the number of dependents of all migrants has barely changed since 2007. Almost as many migrants are being allowed to stay on as before, and the number of foreign students and their dependents has risen sharply.

The number of immigrants granted British citizenship in 2009 also rose 58 per cent over 2008 to a record 203,865.

In this context, the differences in approach to the problem by both Labour and Conservatives may not be quite as sharp as they would like voters to think.

The Tories will reduce the number of students by requiring them to return home if they want to apply for further courses. But universities and colleges say this will cost Britain valuable foreign earnings by deterring students from coming here.

On work permits, the Tories say they will impose an overall cap wherever the numbers impact adversely on public services.

Yet that limit may not, in practice, be very different from the numbers allowed in by Labour. In both cases, permits are likely to be dictated primarily by the level of skills shortages in the economy as independently assessed by officials.
So, where does all this leave the ONS projection of 70 million?

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, says the fact that Thames Water is building a desalination plant in the Thames Estuary to increase the water supply vividly demonstrates how the population of London and the South-East is 'reaching clear environmentally sustainable limits'.

But for him, the question is not whether Britain's population reaches '65 million, 70 million (or) 75 million' but how migrants are distributed across the country.

He wants to restrict them to less densely populated parts of the North and Scotland in order to try to rebalance the economy away from the South-East's financial services basis towards more traditional forms of wealth creation such as manufacturing.

Similarly, Home Secretary Alan Johnson has no difficulty in principle with our population growing by another eight million: 'I do not lie awake at night worrying about a population of 70 million,' he once famously said.
By contrast, Phil Woolas told me: 'I don't think our country could cope easily at all with 70 million.'

Like the Tories, he is pledged to reduce net immigration, which in 2008 stood at 163,000 more arrivals than those leaving.
In Thursday's TV debate, David Cameron said he would reduce that figure to 'tens of thousands'.

Given the vicissitudes of the economy, precision is, of course, impossible. But to avoid getting to 70 million, that reduction will have to come down from 163,000 to, at most, 50,000. However, this may take several years, and it may also be very tough to hold it there.

Whoever wins the General Election, the ONS population projection will present them with an acute dilemma: if immigration figures don't fall very substantially, house prices and rents will go yet higher, increasing the divisions of an already deeply divided society.

The alternative is a massive building programme. But where will the many billions come from to pay for it? We are about to enter one of the most deep and sustained periods of spending cuts in our history. Politics is, indeed, about tough choices.

John Ware is a reporter for the BBC's Panorama. His programme Is Britain Full? will be transmitted on BBC1 today at 8.30pm.

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