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Balancing Britain’s Population

Writing in The Guardian, Labour MP Frank Field discusses the problem of the UK’s growing population. He notes that “The UK’s population has now hit 61m and is growing twice as fast as in the 1990s and three times as fast as in the 1980s. On present forecasts the UK will hit 77m in 50 years’ time and will outnumber France and even Germany.”

The article focussed on immigration, and the comments, predictably concentrated on the difficulties of absorbing immigrants with different cultural backgrounds, which inevitably turned into mudslinging with many responses being deleted by the moderator. But there is of course, a land issue underneath this.

80% of the population is concentrated in about one-third of the land area. And within that third of the country, people are quite dispersed so that many are obliged to drive, since it is impossible to provide adequate public transport. The effect of these two is that it is difficult for people to get away from each other and everyone tends to feel stressed.

What needs to happen, though gradually, is for people to move into more compact developments, roughly equivalent to the better nineteenth century suburbs, where the population is roughly 100 to 150 people per hectare. This corresponds to two or three storey development with plenty of space for private gardens, allottments and public parks and other amenities, whilst still being sufficiently dense to serve efficiently by public transport. And good public transport is needed, which means tracked electric vehicles running 4 to 6 times an hour minimum ie trams or light rail systems. There is a lot of difficult land use planning to be done, with substantial infrastructure investment, and that calls for a satisfactory reform of land tenure to stop land being a speculative commodity.

Second, the relatively disadvantaged 2/3rds of the UK’s land area needs to be properly utilised, which means some kind of tax reform to neutralise the effect of the disadvantages. Both measure in fact, require the right sort of land value taxation.

What the optimum population would be is another matter, but something like the present one might be accommodated if it was better distributed and people did not expect to be able to drive everywhere and consume resources profligately. Managed decline might lead to a more comfortable outcome, with a target of nearer 30 million. Of course, the population might drop dramatically through natural causes, irrespective of what anyone’s plans. These things can happen.

Too low is no good as it becomes difficult and expensive to provide services. In this respect, it is worth noting that Sweden’s 9 million are concentrated into one large conurbation and two smaller ones with a lot of empty space in between. One has only to go 10 miles outside Gothenberg with a population in the conurbation of around 800,000 to find sparsely populated countryside with gravel roads.

The issue is as much as anything about how land is used, and by whom.