Last edited 09 Feb 2021

Treasury Select Committee evidence 2014

Stephen Nickell, a member of the board of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), gave evidence about the impact of immigration to the Treasury Select Committee following the Autumn Statement in December 2014.

During the lively discussion Nickell suggested that immigration was, to some extent, a matter of space and whether there was the room or the infrastructure to cope with an increased population.

He said, "The evidence suggests that, since more immigrants mean more housing, more roads, more airports, more incinerators, more more more of this being required, and since the evidence would suggest that people by and large don't like these things - especially if they are near them.

"One argument says 'we are a small island, not much room.' On the other hand, of course - there is masses of room. The urbanised part of Britain occupies less than 10% of the surface area. The urbanised part of Surrey occupies less of Surrey than golf courses. So in some senses, plenty of space."

This would seem to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the word ‘space’. The fact that land has not been built on does not mean it is empty. Agricultural land has not been built on, but that does not mean it is sat empty, on the contrary, it is a vital part of our economy. And beyond purely economic considerations, land such as our national parks are open spaces, but there are few people that would want us to build on them.

Even golf courses, which may not be to everyone’s taste, do perform a function. It may be that society decides this is not a good use of space, but that would require a much wider debate about the type of country we want to live in and the things we need and value, other than just real estate.

There may well be room for more development in the UK, and there is certainly a significant amount of brownfield land still available, but to characterise unbuilt areas as mere ‘space’ demonstrates a poor understanding of land use. If we are to build on more ‘space’ the question needs to be, ‘which of the current land uses are we prepared to do without?’

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