I am one of Europe’s growing cohort of old age pensioners. In 31 European countries, even if life expectancy does not improve, the population aged 65+ would increase by 40 per cent to 2050. If life expectancy continues to grow, the number of persons aged 65+ will leap by between 87 and 111 per cent. However, with out-migration and low birth rates, many of Europe’s regions face the prospect of a population that is both ageing and reducing in numbers. Unless things change, 60% of European regions will experience population decline up to 2050. Demography is a key factor in the development and planning of cities and region: what are Europe’s prospects and what are the implications?
Different regions, different challenges
An ESPON research project has reported on the impacts of demography and migration in the 27 EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. Taking 2005 as a baseline, it identified six types of region, which face different planning and development challenges:
1 – Euro Standard are regions close to the overall average, but with a slightly older age structure. Although there is little, if any, natural population increase, there is population gain through net migration. These regions are mainly found in Northern and Western Europe, and include most of England, Wales and Scotland.
2 – Challenge of Labour Force are places with a high share of population in young working ages, but still a slight population decline, driven by a negative natural population development. These regions are mainly situated in Eastern Europe and in some peripheral areas in Southern Europe. There are none in the UK.
3 – Family Potentials have a slightly younger than average age structure and high natural population increases, as well as positive net migration rates. Several regions in Northern and Western Europe belong to this type, including Northern Ireland and a corridor from London to the Midlands.
4 – Challenge of Ageing is a group characterised by older populations and natural population decreases. Nevertheless, the overall population size is still increasing due to a strong net migration surplus. This is mainly a Southern European type, but also includes the south west of England and Lincolnshire.
Then come two categories that are not found in the UK. These are;
5 – Challenge of Decline are regions shaped by a negative natural population balance, but are also losing population through net migration. The result is depopulation accompanied by demographic ageing. This type of region is found in Eastern Europe, including Eastern Germany.
6 – Young Potentials features a young age structure, a positive natural population increase, and strong gains through in-migratory. These regions are mainly found in Spain.
What does the future hold? The researchers, who include a team from the University of Leeds, developed some possible scenarios to stimulate debate amongst policy makers. The scenarios are built on the assumption that while the effects of policies will depend on economic developments, policy makers have a double choice. They can either emphasise social solidarity or competitiveness, and either economy or environment. Combining the two dimensions produces four policy scenarios: ‘Growing Social Europe’ (GSE), ‘Expanding Market Europe’ (EME), ‘Limited Social Europe’ (LSE) and ‘Challenged Market Europe’ (CME). Each of these scenarios is associated with a set of policies that are expected to impact, to a greater or lesser degree, on future patterns of mortality, fertility and migration.
Under the Growing Social Europe and Expanding Market Europe scenarios the population of Europe will grow by nearly a fifth in the period to 2050. Under the Limited Social Europe and Challenged Market Europe scenarios, Europe’s population will stay around its current level. Europe’s population does not diminish under these scenarios because life expectancy still improves, albeit at a slower pace, and people survive to older ages.
International migration will be high if economic growth is high and policies are market oriented, as shown by the EME. In this scenario, most UK regions are in Europe’s leading band, with population increases 2005-2050 of over 25%. In contrast, if economic growth is low and policies are focusing on cohesion, international migration will be low. The report says that “If high economic growth in certain areas of Europe is not checked by territorial cohesion policies the result may be greater movement of job seekers from lagging regions of Europe into the already affluent regions.” However, there is little difference across the scenarios in the degree of ageing.
Migrants move to regions that enjoy affluence, accessibility and a nice climate. The only way to prevent the growth of regional disparities due to migration is seen to be by policies to reduce incentives to emigrate from poor regions (e.g. international recognition of professional qualifications) and through policies that encourage poorer regions to attract more extra-European migration. Climate change impacts are expected to be an additional burden on the regions that are already affected by a diminishing labour force and an ageing population.
London , West Yorkshire and Scotland
The research includes a case study of London, the most ethnically diverse city in Europe, with a third of its residents born outside the UK. Though in-migration was found to have diminished since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008, in the high-growth scenario southern England shows up as one of Europe’s hot spots for the much coveted growth in numbers of people in the working age groups.
The study of West Yorkshire notes the contrasts between Leeds and Bradford, and the important part that the growth of the student population has played in the regional economy. The case study observes that “While Leeds successfully has attracted significant investments, Bradford remains in the shadow of Leeds and continues to experience significant net out-migration through internal migration which is balanced by a large net inflow due to international migration that continues to enhance one of the largest concentrations of minority ethnic populations in the country. For West Yorkshire as well as similar regions with such diversity within its borders, a cohesive market economy, which seeks to reduce economic and demographic inequalities between sub-regions, is a challenging scenario.”
Continuation of the status quo would see a 25% population increase in West Yorkshire by 2050, with net immigration from outside Europe the main driver. The Expanding Market Europe scenario achieves the most substantial population growth (71%) over the projection period. However, it also results in a substantial and increasing net loss through internal migration. This is because West Yorkshire loses out to more attractive regional destinations. Population growth is driven by very high net immigration from within and outside Europe, which in turn fuels a large increase in the number of births to the more youthful migrant population.
The West of Scotland is expected to lose out under three of the four scenarios, only holding its demographic own compared to a Status Quo scenario under the conditions assumed for a Growing Social Europe. The Highlands and Islands also face the risk of relative population loss under the less optimistic scenarios, LSE and CME.
Towards a debate
Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralisation and Planning, has said that he wants to revive planning as a plan-making process, concerned with anticipating future needs and demands. He argues that this role has been eclipsed by the focus on development control, whereas good planning is about providing a framework for thinking about the future. Scenarios of demographic change are essential building blocks for such strategic thinking. Clark’s enthusiasm for localism still allows for planning strategies at higher scales, and more flexible arrangements than traditional “command and control” approaches.
So, should regional development policy aim to smooth out the widening demographic gap between growth in regions like the south east of England and the poorer parts of the UK and Europe? Or are we comfortable with a situation where regional growth or decline depends on people following the money (and the sunshine)? And, if the latter is the case, are we prepared to plan for the scale of international immigration that would reflect the coveted position that the UK holds in the world? What do you think? Your comments are welcome.