Why Jersey should stabilise its population

(This is a longer version of a piece I wrote for the JEP, 14/11/20)

It is often said that the arguments around Jersey’s fabled missing population policy are fiendishly complex; that we need lots more data is needed before it is possible to come to a conclusion; that making a choice is head spinningly difficult. I disagree. At heart, population policy is a very simple issue. It’s about two things: defining what kind of island we want to be and the desire to have a say in shaping the place we live.

These are powerful human needs. Modern capitalism has left people feeling helpless in the face of forces over which they have little or no influence. That’s the reason that “take back control” was such a lethally effective slogan during the Brexit campaign. It is not surprising that population is such an emotive topic in Jersey, because we can all sense how fundamental it is to the future of the island.

Jersey faces a stark choice. The “establishment” option is to increase the population by around 1000 a year. That’s the figure pencilled in to government planning documents. Think of it as another St Brelade’s every ten years. (Although there’s no suggestion from the powers that be that it stops in 10 years – all the arguments that are advanced for increasing the population now will be just the same in 10 years time.) This sets Jersey on a path to concreting over green fields, a high rise St Helier, expansion of rural settlements and more land reclamation. That’s not me scaremongering, it’s all in the latest Island Plan strategy document. 

There is an alternative. The big prize that would decisively change Jersey’s future for the better is a stable population policy. In other words, managing immigration so that the island’s population stays where it is now, at around 110,000.

A stable population policy does not involve “cutting the island off” from the rest of the world. Immigration brings many benefits to the island. We need immigrants to bring in new ideas, to innovate and to fill gaps in the labour market. Jersey’s history has been woven from many different strands of immigration, and our culture is immeasurably richer for it. The issue is simply one of scale.

If people keep arriving at the present rate it will change Jersey in a profound and negative way. But we don’t have to say no to immigration in order to stabilise our population. Approximately 1000 people leave the island every year. Therefore there is room for around a thousand people to come into the island every year without increasing the population.

Balancing inward and outward migration would give us a coherent, sustainable, long term plan for the island’s future. But it goes so much further than that. A stable population could be at the heart of a great mission to renew Jersey economically, environmentally, socially and politically. It could energise a spirit of renewal for the island, building on the best of what we’ve got, but also enabling us to tackle longstanding problems.

Unfortunately, the establishment view is that the island’s population policy should be an outcome of other questions: how many people do we need to pay for pensions in the future, or to sustain economic growth? They refuse to see what everyone else can see: the issue of population is a question in its own right. 

How many people there are controls our quality of life and the character of the society in which we live. The more people, the more crowded the island gets. Traffic congestion mounts. Another reservoir is needed. Wildlife comes under greater pressure. Fragile environments get damaged. Tranquility is lost. Already this summer we’ve seen cars parked nose to tale along the grass verges of the Five Mile Road, all the car parks full.

A community changes in nature as it gets bigger. One of the reasons I came back to live in Jersey was that it is still small enough to feel like a functioning, cohesive, single community. We still have a distinctive island identity. Our political representatives are known to us. We benefit from a certain density of shared relationships. These are precious attributes. 

Politicians don’t want to talk about population because they fear the outcome of the debate. Many believe that the public’s desire to stop the everlasting growth of population is based on ignorance or prejudice. In short, they think they are right and the public are wrong. Increasing population is very definition of an elite project, carried on in spite of popular opposition because the elite think they know best (or perhaps, what is best for them). 

Unfair? Take a look at history. For years the island had a policy of restricting population growth to 325 a year. There was much hand ringing from Ministers, who wittered on about how difficult it was to control immigration. They could have proposed new powers, but the truth is they didn’t want to enforce their own policy. In 2016, the Gorst government simply abandoned the target. Shortly afterwards the position of Minister for Population was abolished. The rationale seems to have been that if high levels of immigration became entrenched, then it would become a new normal.

All of which means that immigration has rocketed. If Jersey were a country it would be in the top 10 for immigration levels in the world. And what has it achieved? Even in its own terms, the policy has been an abject failure. It was supposed to increase economic growth. But Jersey’s growth figures for the last two decades – the period of great population rise – have been lamentable. Wealth per head of population is 25% lower than in the year 2000. No wonder middle Jersey feels squeezed. 

Critics might say that perhaps Jersey would have fared even worse had we not had population growth. We can examine this proposition by looking at Guernsey. Over the last 10 years, Guernsey has had a stable population. It’s wealth per head of population has grown 20% in that period. Guernsey is now considerably wealthier than Jersey (and incidentally house prices have also remained stable). So no, population growth does not bring increases in wealth – if anything, quite the opposite. 

GDP per head of population in real terms in Jersey, Guernsey and the UK, 2012 to 2018 (indexed 2012 = 100). If you go back further than 2012, the difference is even greater. (The figures for raw GDP growth also show Guernsey out performing Jersey)

The apostles of population growth also argue it is necessary in order to pay for pensions in the future. Only by bringing in more workers can tax revenue be increased to cope with the rising numbers of elderly as life expectancy increases. They hate this strategy being referred to as a Ponzi scheme, but that is exactly what it is. Future benefits can only be paid by recruiting more people into the tax paying cohort. Each new generation of taxpayers eventually grows old and leaves the labour market, necessitating yet higher levels of net immigration. The question they can never answer is, when does it end? There are better, sustainable ways of paying for pensions.

There are other ways of paying for pensions in the future. All the focus is on what’s called the dependency ratio – the ratio of people not in the labour market (and therefore not paying taxes) to those who are in work. Without a rising population the dependency ratio gets higher as people live longer. But as Deputy Perchard has pointed out, the dependency ratio is not the best way to measure whether we can afford pensions. If we drive up wages (through for example a major commitment to education and training, which increases productivity), then the same number of workers can support a greater number of pensioners.

But ultimately the case for a stable population does not rest on the clear failure of the existing policy. It rests on the incredible opportunity that lies in front of us if we embrace a stable population policy. For years we have talked about narrowing income inequality, eradicating poverty, improving life chances for the young, making housing more affordable. A stable population policy makes those “levelling up” aspirations not only possible, but vitally necessary. 

We will be compelled to do better for everyone who lives here. Instead of automatically reaching for the easy option of bringing someone already fully trained into the island, we will need to grow the talents of people who are already here. Education and training will need a huge boost, with an emphasis on lifelong learning, and working closely with employers to ensure we address skills gaps. With more restricted immigration, no talent can afford to go to waste.

We will be able to ensure that those who are of pensionable age but who still wish to work are given the opportunity to contribute. We are too quick to write off the skills and experience of the elderly. Making sure that those who wish to stay in the labour market can do so will help them, and help the island.

We will finally be able to build enough houses for the people who live here, and provide them at a relatively affordable price. It is bonkers to think that we can solve the housing crisis whilst we grow the population by a thousand a year. Demand will always outstrip supply.

A combination of more affordable housing and continuous training and education will mean that more young people will see a future for themselves in the island.

By taking away the pressure for endless building, we gain the opportunity to protect and enhance our environment and heritage, to the benefit of our quality of life and ultimately the economy. We will be able to lead a new era of green thinking, using regenerative farming methods, creating a marine park, expanding the National Park, supporting renewable energy, encouraging low carbon transport, lowering the environmental impact of construction, and better health outcomes.

Yes, the details of how to execute a stable population policy are complex. Of course they are. All future options regarding population policy for this island involve complex decisions about the detail of implementation. The problem up until now is that the government haven’t made a serious effort to execute a stable population policy. We need to turn the problem around and ask: what do we need to do to make a stable population work? If we strain every sinew in the service of that project, then we’ll get there.

A stable population policy is a mission that would drive engagement in politics. It would add a new dimension to the island’s economy. Ultimately, Jersey could become a beacon for how to create a good society, that places people and the environment at the very core of everything it does.

Isn’t that a prize worth seizing?

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