The author is the founder and managing partner of FutureMap
It’s tempting to be pessimistic about Britain’s future in this dark and gloomy season. The victories of the COP26 climate summit have faded from memory, while the eastern fork of HS2 has been scrapped and the northern power station reduced. The country’s widespread labor shortages from truck drivers to nurses have become an accepted norm. The only hope is that the UK can succeed again in spite of itself.
Maybe that’s exactly what will happen. As climate change reduces our world to a Darwinian adaptation race, Britain appears to be well positioned to be among the strongest – but only if it doubles down on green energy, resilient transport and cities and smart immigration. The UK can not fulfill Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s quest to be great “green power” unless it builds the infrastructure and attracts the workforce to adapt.
With its industrial base eroding and depopulating many towns, the UK must now engage in a new administrative, economic and demographic strategy. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has unveiled an ambitious £ 650 billion public and private spending plan for the coming decade, every penny of which will be needed for the government to achieve its twin goals of green growth and equality. The country already gets more than half of its energy from non-fossil fuels, and aims to be fully powered by clean energy sources by 2035. Hull, a wind and green hydrogen hub, is exporting its knowledge to the US to build wind farms off the coast of New England. French winemakers plant vineyards in the south of England and fresh British produce is sought after worldwide.
But if the UK wants to export the Germans and Danes in wind turbines and get its food to world markets faster than the Dutch, the northern power station must be expanded to Liverpool and Hull. This would create a high-speed passenger and cargo land bridge that would connect British ports more efficiently with Europe and Asia in the east and the western hemisphere across the Atlantic. Seen in this light, the government’s decision to scrap a section of the HS2 line and abandon the northern power station railway from Manchester to Leeds was particularly disappointing.
Competing internationally will also require getting the country’s demographic house in order. The UK has an aging population and is facing declining fertility. According to the Center for Population Change, the birth rate in England and Wales dropped to 1.6 last year, and could further decrease to 1.45 births per woman by 2023. Without a balanced, growth-oriented immigration strategy, it could get worse.
Human ingenuity and labor are still the key drivers to accelerate Britain’s industrial revival. Without foreign workers performing basic services, British cities would look like Naples, with rubbish piling up on the streets. There is a lot of work to do, and the UK unfortunately lacks the truck drivers, doctors, nurses, construction workers, warehouse staff and farmers to do it. These tasks will not be automated anytime soon. Rather than using the military to supply fuel, the government would be better off recruiting an army of skilled migrants to get essential projects off the ground over years instead of decades.
Immigration policy should therefore be less about numbers and more about attracting people to work in a nation that strives for green growth, healthy demographics and global influence. The UK needs young and skilled workers to stave off the economic downturn driven by population deflation. Ministers must move quickly, before other nations take the lead in the race for talent.
Fortunately, the UK has not had a closed door to migration since the Brexit referendum. Last year, a record number of foreign students attended British universities, and their tuition fees injected much-needed cash into academic coffers. Instead of proof of employment and a security bond payment, proof of a university degree is now enough for citizens of many developing countries to work in the UK. With more than 1 million vacancies in total, and unemployment last month of less than 5 per cent, the UK suddenly seems like a desirable destination for aspiring grafters.
Immigrants from emerging markets have the dual advantage of being ambassadors for deeper commercial ties. Earlier this year, the UK launched a scheme enabling Hong Kong GNP passport holders to quickly relocate to Britain and obtain citizenship. About 65,000 have already applied. Downing Street should now look even further away with the aim of propelling the population to 80m by 2050, a healthy and desirable level.
Boris is right: great powers will inevitably be green powers. But being green is not enough. To gather people is also to gather strength.