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Does Wales face an existential crisis?

December 2nd 2019

Dramatic changes in the population could threaten the very future of Wales, suggests Victoria Winckler. It’s time to take a fresh look at immigration and family-friendly policies if Wales is to survive and thrive.

 

Throughout recent times, Wales’ population has grown.

There are now more than a quarter of a million more people living here than there were in 1991, mostly because of people moving into Wales from both the rest of the UK and overseas.  Much of Wales’ economy is based on servicing this growing population – building more houses, more schools, more roads and providing more goods and services. It’s been like this for at least the last century.

This growth is about to end

The Office for National Statistics’ population projections, published in October, suggest that Wales inexorable growth could soon come to an end. For the first time in recent times, Wales’ population is forecast to start to decline in the mid-2020s.

This reason for this about-turn is that net migration is forecast to virtually stop. Having stood at 12 – 16,000 people a year for the last three years, the forecast is that net migration will drop to just 3,000 people a year in future.  This is not enough to offset the natural decline in population as the number of deaths exceeds the number of births.

Even more challenging, the older population is forecast to increase while the population of working age contracts. In 1991 there were 3.6 people of working age for every person of retirement age; by the early 2030s there are forecast to be about 1.7 people aged 16-59 for every person aged 60 plus.

There may well be some people who would welcome the end of in-migration, whether of people from elsewhere in the UK or overseas.  Indeed the hostility facing many in-migrants is why our Christmas appeal is asking for help to make sure people are welcome here.

But a declining population rarely brings prosperity.

Instead there’s the prospect of falling house prices and empty or abandoned property, services closing down because they’re unsustainable, and a shrinking tax base to pay for the NHS, education and social care.   Over the last thirty years only three local authorities in Wales have seen their populations virtually stand still (Merthyr Tydfil and Ynys Mon) or decline (Blaenau Gwent). Imagine that sort of decline spread more widely across Wales.

What to do?

In-migration is the way that many countries maintain and grow their population.  This is why we have argued that the Welsh Government should press for powers to decide who can live and work in Wales. It could, for example, decide to boost Wales’ growing tech industries by encouraging people with high tech skills to relocate here.

But it that is not feasible then an alternative is to boost fertility by making Wales incredibly family-friendly. An end to pregnancy discrimination; decent maternity leave and maternity pay; top quality affordable and seamless childcare from 9 months to age 13 and family-friendly employers might well enable and encourage women to have more children.

And to support families, how about good schools, affordable housing, superb maternal and child health services and a clean and green environment.

What is also clear is that many of the benefits currently enjoyed by pensioners are going to be very, very squeezed if there isn’t the working population to sustain them.  Free bus passes, free museum entry, triple-locked pensions are all going to be very very difficult to afford. I do not say this lightly – pensioner poverty is on the up and attempts to cut back what are seen as entitlements have been strongly challenged.

Yet we need to look at these big challenges head on.  The time to start debating these issues is now, not ten years time when – if the predictions come true – Wales is a nation in terminal decline.

And – before you go – please support our ‘Say Croeso’ campaign with donation.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation.  

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