Fact Check: is the UK the most crowded country in Europe?

Is the UK fuller than the rest of Europe? Fiona Hanson/PA Archive

Just think on this: in what is already the most crowded country in Europe … we have to build one new dwelling every seven minutes just to cope with current rates of immigration.

Nigel Farage, UKIP leader

In his flagship speech on immigration, it appears that the claims above made by UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s are incorrect. Looking behind the figures, they are rather crude and there is more vital information which should be considered to see the full picture.

There are two issues to explore here. First, that of “overcrowding”. According to figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there are an average of 413 people per sqkm in England. Comparing this with 2012 data from the Eurostat database for the European Union, England would sit behind just Malta (1,327 people per sqkm) and the Netherlands (496.9 people per sqkm).

According to the ONS, there are 64.1 million people living in the UK, which has an overall land area of 241,930 square km. This gives an overall average of 265 people per square km – slightly up on the 2012 figure of 262.7 from Eurostat.

In 2012, the UK was placed fourth on the list of countries in the European Union, behind Malta, The Netherlands and Belgium. The European average for the EU 28 countries was 116.3. So both the UK, and England on its own, are among the most densely populated countries in Europe, but not the most densely populated.

It’s also important to look at the broader picture for the UK. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are relatively sparsely populated. Equally, not all areas of England are densely populated, with much of the recent immigration from Eastern Europe being concentrated in the south and east, which has seen high demand for labour in farming and construction.

Office for National Statistics licensed under the Open Government Licence v.3.0

Housing shortage

The issue of housing provision raised by Farage is more problematic. It is true that the UK is facing an acute housing shortage. The Confederation of British Industries (CBI) believes Britain needs to build 240,000 houses a year to keep up with population growth.

With net migration to the UK being 298,000 in 2014, the latest estimates from the ONS support Farage’s argument of a requirement to build one home every seven minutes to meet a net population increase in the UK of 298,000. Assuming a household of four people, 74,500 homes are required to house 298,000 people. If you divide 525,600 minutes in a year by 74,500, you get one home needing to be built every seven minutes.

The CBI recommendation of 240,000 homes a year is to keep up with population growth as a whole, not just immigration. Immigration actually accounts for 60% of population growth. Therefore, according to this figure – 60% of the CBI’s housing requirement – a total of 144,000 homes per year would be needed by new migrants. According to this adjusted figure and using the same calculation as above, one house needs to be built every four (3.6) minutes rather than every seven minutes, to provide housing for new migrants.

It is important to recognise that different types of migrants, with different rights, opportunities and resources are likely to have very different experiences of and impacts on the UK housing system. Using net migration numbers in this way doesn’t account for whole families – nor does it reflect those who are British born children of migrants.

Renting, rather than buying

Critically, people born outside the UK are much more likely to live in rented accommodation than people born in the UK, because they are poorer. Foreign-born individuals have significantly lower ownership rates – 43% are home owners – than the UK-born, of whom 69% are home owners. Of those living in rented accommodation, most people born abroad are in the private rented sector. Migrants are therefore unlikely to require new built housing to purchase. Rather, they need a house to rent.

Immigration increasing the demand for housing is only part of the story. The net number of housing completions in the UK has fallen from 378,00 in 1969-70 to 137,00 in 2013-14. The decline is spread across the country and can, in part, be blamed for the housing shortage.

Verdict

The statement by UKIP’s Nigel Farage that the UK is “the most crowded country in Europe” and “one dwelling must be built every seven minutes just to cope with the current rates of immigration” is partly untrue.

The UK is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, but not the most populated. One dwelling does need to be built every seven minutes to meet population growth brought about by immigration. However, the story is much more complex than this.

Review

On the assumption that the statistics are accurate, the analysis and conclusions drawn are generally appropriate and tenable. Two caveats apply. First, according to country-specific official sources, the UK is only the seventh most densely populated country in Europe. Belgium, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, San Marino and Vatican City top the UK. The UK and in particular London and the south east may feel very crowded because, according to Globalpropertyguide.com, the UK has – apart from Monaco – the highest house price per square metre. Evidence from forthcoming research to be published in the Economic Journal suggests that this is mainly due to an incredibly restrictive planning system in conjunction with strong earnings growth in London and the south east over decades.

Second, the statement that suggests that actually one house needs to be built every 3.6 minutes itself builds on two assumptions. The assumption – made by the CBI in its report – that, to keep up with population growth, “around four homes need to be built for every 1,000 people” seems reasonable. The figure of 144,000 new homes for immigrants per year is more questionable. It implicitly assumes that immigrants have a similar housing demand to the existing population. Especially low skilled immigrants arguably have a much lower housing consumption than native or permanent residents.

The Conversation is fact checking political statements in the lead-up to the May UK general election. Statements are checked by an academic with expertise in the area. A second academic expert reviews an anonymous copy of the article.

Click here to request a check. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible. You can also email factcheck@theconversation.com

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