In 1960, in the US journal Science, a paper by the distinguished physicist and philosopher Heinz von Foerster and two colleagues declared, “Our great-great-grandchildren will not starve to death. They will be squeezed to death.” The paper was titled Doomsday: Friday, 13 November, AD 2026. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/09/is-britain-full-home-truths-about-population-panic
Last year, London’s population reached an all-time peak of more than 8.6 million. By 2050, it is forecast to be 11 million, and possibly as high as 13 million. The rest of the UK’s population is growing, too. The Office for National Statistics expects it to swell by 4.6 million during the 2010s – “the biggest growth in the last 50 years”. In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK had almost 65 million inhabitants, its greatest ever total. The rate of population growth doubled in the 90s and doubled again in the 00s. It is predicted to be home to more people than France by 2030 and more people than Germany by 2047, which would make this much smaller land mass the most populous country in Europe. This expanding population is almost always talked about in negative terms. In 2011, a Royal Commission on Demographic Change and the Environment concluded: “In practice, there is little government can do to have any real effect on the size of the population over the next 40 years.” The boom’s causes are too interconnected and powerful – and the British state insufficiently authoritarian – for our population trends to be set by Whitehall. The commission recommended instead that governments protect the UK by “improving resource use and influencing consumption patterns”
But Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research thinks alarm is wrong. “We find it hard to be positive about population growth. But it has boosted economic growth. It has made austerity less painful, by increasing total employment and tax revenues. And congestion, pressure on services – they’re considerably easier to cope with, from a collective point of view, than the opposite problems. We’ve forgotten what depopulation feels like.” Between 1975 and 1978, the UK population fell. In 1982, it dropped again. “The population of inner London fell by 20% in the 70s,” says Portes. “Many people said London was basically doomed. It was going to go the way of Detroit. Inner London would become wasteland.” The consequences of depopulation could be bleak: boarded-up houses; miles of urban dereliction; dwindling investment and passenger numbers in and on public transport. In some places, despite the recovery of the population since, this emptied Britain still exists.
Jonathan Portes points out that much of the UK is not crowded anyway. Liverpool and Glasgow have barely half as many inhabitants now as they had at their peaks in the middle of the 20th century. All population statistics are by definition slightly out of date and approximate, but while England has roughly 410 people a sq km – the second highest in the EU – Wales has only 150, Northern Ireland 135 and Scotland 70. Even heaving, stressful London is much less full of people than is widely supposed. “London is the lowest-density mega-city on the planet,” says Danny Dorling. “The densest part of London is four times less dense than Barcelona, a normal, well-planned European city that Britons all want to visit.”
Danny Dorling, a demographer and professor of geography at the University of Oxford argues that the UK’s “overpopulation problem” is really the product of poor land use and social division, of corporate wage squeezes and cuts in state provision. “We’ve managed to organise ourselves so that much of our daily lives is crowded. We have the smallest homes in Europe. Meanwhile, there’s lots of wasted space.” Inner London is increasingly taken up by the huge, little-occupied homes of the super-rich and empty investors’ properties. He thinks the population panic will pass. “I find it hard to believe that we’ll have this gloomy discourse on population in 20 years’ time.” Portes agrees: “You can build more schools and hospitals. Population redistribution is hard, but not impossible. You obviously can’t plonk people in the middle of nowhere, but we built new towns in the 50s. Why not build more within commuting distance of, say, Manchester?” Sooner or later, Dorling points out, the current rise will go into reverse. The British economy will enter a recession and cease to be so attractive to immigrants. The Mediterranean economies will recover. Even the civil wars in the Middle East and Africa, and the resulting refugee crisis, will end. At this point, the size of the British population will depend much more on our fertility rate, which is around 1.9 children a family – one of the highest in Europe, but lower than the 2.1 needed to keep a population stable.