19 May 2006

On house prices and porous borders

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that our national border is extremely porous. We have huge numbers of mostly young people heading to our shores from around the world to find work and fortune in our booming economy. The admission of Poland and other East European states to the EC has simply hastened and legitimised this movement. This week the government came close to admitting that it had very little control over the process and had no idea how many illegal immigrants there are in the country.

Whether you view this process as a good or bad depends very much on where you live and what you do for a living. There remains a perception also that it’s liberal and right-on to allow unfettered immigration and crusty and conservative to oppose it. I am not going to get drawn into that debate here but I do think it’s time we looked at the consequences of having a rapidly rising population, for that is what is happening.

When I was born, in 1953, Britain was still almost exclusively white. Aboriginal Anglo-Saxons and Celts. It was also the time that marked the beginning of immigration. All through my life, people from all cultures have been pitching up here on our shores. But their arrival was almost always balanced by an equal number emigrating, so the net population was little changed. Whatever your views on multiculturalism etc etc, there was no great pressure on resources.

But now things have changed. It’s impossible to be precise about numbers but it seems quite likely that the national population may now be growing at between a quarter and half a million a year, entirely as a result of immigration. All these people need to be housed somewhere. This morning I was wondering just where they are all going? Are they all doubling up in bedsits? Or squeezing into shared houses, sleeping on floors or hot-bedding?

In fact housing, or more particularly a lack of it, is one of the key factors dampening the flow of immigrants. House prices in SE England are the highest in Europe because the demand is the highest in Europe whilst the new supply is one of the lowest. The government, via the Barker report, has plans to increase the level of housing supply in SE England but the Barker report itself didn’t look at the effect of housing on immigration. It was working on an assumption that the overall population would stay pretty much where it has been for the past 30 years, at around 60 million. But what happens if it goes to 65 million or 70 million? There are already more Poles in the UK than there are in Warsaw. If we build another 250,000 homes, all within commuting distance of London, won’t they just fill up with more Poles?

Maybe not, but it’s worth making this connection. The affordability issue that everyone goes on about won’t be solved by an increase in housing supply unless the national population remains largely static. Which translates as some form of limitation on immigration. And that, politically, seems a long way off.

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