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13 August 2020

Why we must finally abandon the myth that Britain is overcrowded

If this country feels overcrowded the blame lies with failed housing policy, not with migrants or children yet to be born.

By Jonn Elledge

In recent months, the former No 10 speechwriter Clare Foges has used her Times column to bravely taken on such towering targets as illegal migrants, Traveller culture, and this country’s unshakeable obsession with holding its ministers accountable. The apparent belief that she’s bravely saying the unsayable seems so out of touch with the blindingly obvious reality that you can’t cough without half a dozen people saying any of this, that fisking one of her columns feels like a sort of category error.

But last week she wrote a piece with the headline “Let’s be honest about our overcrowded island”, which repeats a depressingly popular fallacy about a topic I have thought about a lot. And you can’t expect me to maintain self-control in this heat, so there we are.

The thesis of Foges’s column is essentially that population growth is leading to overcrowded transport, housing and public services; and that the general public would be up in arms if they realised that we were on course to have the largest population in Europe by 2050. Foges backs calls for the government to create a Demographic Authority, which would provide apolitical advice on demographic trends and so drain the politics from the immigration debate, just as the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) has done with the fiscal one. 

The fact that the OBR has managed no such thing, and we’ve spent much of the last decade arguing about austerity, doesn’t seem to matter. Nor does the fact that immigration policy is an inherently political choice, and you can no more depoliticise it than you can, well, fiscal policy. 

But let’s put all that aside, because the entire notion that Britain is a small, overcrowded island is complete and utter nonsense. Firstly, it isn’t that small. Great Britain is actually the ninth-largest island, and 13th-largest landmass, on the planet, as well as by far the largest island in Europe. This, given that there are untold thousands of islands on this rock, means it would genuinely be more intellectually honest to describe Britain as a large island. It may flatter our self-image to imagine ourselves as a plucky little upstart; but like many things about Britain’s self-image, it simply isn’t true. 

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The idea that this country is uniquely overcrowded is rubbish too. Demographic stats vary slightly, depending on their source. But generally, when you list the 194 universally recognised countries in the world in descending order of population density, the United Kingdom (around 275 people per km²) comes somewhere in the early 30s: comfortably top quartile, but far from top tenth. 

Nor are those countries with higher population densities all city-states or developing economies. They include Japan (333 people per km²), Belgium (376) and the Netherlands (421). If the UK’s population does indeed grow to 80 million by 2050, as some estimates have suggested, its population density will be around 330 people per square kilometre. But “we still won’t be as overcrowded as Japan is now” isn’t as dramatic, somehow, so newspapers don’t put that in their headlines.

Of course, we don’t live in the statistically average UK: we live in specific places. Foges approvingly quotes the 2007 vintage Boris Johnson as asking, “Do we want the south-east of Britain, already the most densely populated major country in Europe, to resemble a giant suburbia?” 

As it happens, the south-east region of England, a slightly artificial L-shaped region running from Oxfordshire to Kent, has a population density of 481/km², which makes it more densely populated than the Netherlands but quite a lot less than South Korea (517/km²). More to the point, it’s less than one-tenth as densely populated as Greater London (5,701/km²). So the idea that the whole place is disappearing under a tide of concrete is demonstrably nonsense, too.

I could go on. I could note that estimates of how much of the UK is in any way built on vary, but never rise above 12 per cent. I could point out that buildings cover less of Britain than the land revealed when the tide goes out; or that the Ordnance Survey data suggests that every building in England, by far the most densely populated of the UK’s four countries, cover only 8.8 per cent of its landmass.

But all our eyes are starting to glaze over and I’ve made my point. Britain, especially its southern-eastern corner, is a fairly densely populated area. But it’s hardly Bangladesh (1,174/km²), let alone Singapore (7,894.26/km²), and a 20 per cent increase in its population over the course of three decades isn’t going to change that.

That doesn’t mean this island doesn’t feel overcrowded, of course. But the reasons for that, I’d posit, are the combination of pokey and expensive housing, a perverse result of seven decades of planning policy intended to protect green space, even though we have loads of it and it’s miles away so we can’t see it; and a failure to plan for the future and actually invest in areas such as transport and public services. 

And the blame for those things lies neither with migrants, nor with children as yet unborn: it lies squarely with the government that has been in power for ten, long years.