Less than 4 weeks to the election.
At a Chamber of Commerce briefing last week, House of Keys candidates were told of the Chamber’s wish to see the Island’s population grow to 100,000 by 2026. This would amount to a growth of 15,000 residents (nearly 18%) in ten years.
This is much more ambitious than the estimates behind the Enterprise Development Scheme, the government’s £50 million flagship programme for economic growth. That scheme has a target of achieving an additional 500 – 1,000 working people per year over a more limited timescale of 5 years.
The best available evidence suggests that the Island’s population stopped growing in 2013 and has started to decline slowly as more young people and families leave than arrive. The population is also ageing and many businesses face recruitment problems. The Island needs to be attractive to inward investment.
I understand why the Chamber is putting forward a case for significant population growth and I welcome its contribution to a very important debate.
An influx of younger working people would bring several benefits. It would:
• prevent further depopulation before it becomes cumulative
• increase contributions to National Insurance and help to bolster the National Insurance Fund from which pensions are taken
• increase contributions to government revenue through direct and indirect taxes
• diminish the burden of public sector pension liabilities
• increase the workforce and help to reduce recruitment issues in some sectors
• lead to improved transport on and off Island and improved entertainment and services
• boost construction generating income, jobs and tax revenue
• generate extra income for many other local businesses, creating more jobs and tax revenue
• attract inward investment
• help to make the population age profile more balanced.
Significant population growth would, of course, also have some costs. It would:
• increase the need for an expanded infrastructure such as roads, water, sewerage, electricity and perhaps even reservoirs
• increase demand for government services especially in healthcare and education
• impact on traffic flows and parking and contribute to the loss of countryside due to development
• create a problem in twenty to thirty years time when the immigrant group of this period begin to reach retirement age.
But what would a growth of 15,000 people over 10 years actually mean? Migration flows never take place only in one direction.
Between 2001 and 2011, the population of the Isle of Man increased by roughly 8,200 people, partly as a result of more births than deaths. Migration added 7,100 to the population but this was the balance between immigration of 17,800 and emigration of 10,700. It took gross migration (inward movement added to outward movement) of 28,500 people to generate population increase of just 7,100. If our population were to increase by more than double this amount, as proposed by Chamber, gross migration could exceed 50,000 in ten years.
Would such enormous movements in and out be destabilising? Would population growth to 100,000 in ten years be socially acceptable? Would it be damaging to Manx culture? Would it consume countryside at a rate that would be approved by the Island’s population? Would infrastructure and services keep pace with this growth? Would a more diverse population composition be universally welcomed? Would rapid growth create a construction boom – followed by a bust? Would we have adequate mechanisms to control the influx? Might we lose some of our most important assets and selling-points – our environment, sense of community and safety?
Population growth is not just about the economy – it’s about people. Getting the balance right is hugely important.
In these difficult times, I would strongly support government action to ward off depopulation. I would support actions to grow the population. But I would want those actions to focus first on encouraging young people and families to stay in the Isle of Man and on encouraging our own young people to return. And I would want the population growth to be sustainable, adding perhaps just half the numbers proposed by Chamber. I would also want to see a gradual movement to a more stable population in the longer term. I am aware that even my views go further than some people would prefer.
There needs to be debate about where we are going with population in the wider community and in Tynwald. There needs to be good use of evidence from the forthcoming census report and much greater clarity about what we are trying to achieve, why and how.
I have played an active part in trying to raise the profile of the Island’s population issues - they are far too important to the future of the Isle of Man for us to ignore. Whether elected or not next month, I look forward to the debate that must take place. The Chamber of Commerce has a hugely important part to play in that debate.