UK: A Crowded Island?

  • Evan Davis
  • 24 Oct 07, 10:17 AM

Can we fit 71 million people in?

Believe the latest population projections, and we had better start preparing ourselves. On realistic assumptions, that's the population we can expect the UK to have by 2031.

Indeed, the official figures go much higher. We'll apparently be up to 84 million by 2081.

Can we take it?

My suspicion is that we can. Most people hugely underestimate the amount of "empty space" we have in our country. Fly over the UK, and you see that human settlement does not fill up the UK at all. It accounts for something of the order of 15 per cent of the landmass.

So physically, we could probably fit another ten million people in - or 16 per cent of the population - without toppling into the sea.

As it is, the UK is not the world's most crowded country. Belgium, Japan and the Netherlands are more densely populated than we are, and would remain so even if we had anther ten million people.

Indeed, if the UK had the population density of the Netherlands, it could accommodate 90 million people. And believe it or not, if the UK had the population density of the quaint island of Jersey, we would actually accommodate another 120 million people on top of the 61 million we already have.

So, yes, I suspect we could accommodate another ten million people.

But that does not mean we would want to.

The British quite reasonably like empty land, and may prefer to keep it empty rather than turn it into a country like the Netherlands.

And anyway, the population growth now being projected will not fill the empty bits of the UK (the Highlands and Islands which could arguably do with more people). It will fill yet more of the same places that are already among the world's most densely populated areas. England's population is projected to grow far faster than Scotland's.

Making that worse, the projected speed of population increase is very rapid. In the next ten years, we will grow as much as we have in the last thirty years, and will in effect absorb the equivalent of the population of Ireland.

And in twenty-five years time, we will have added the population of Belgium to the UK.

This can be done, but it won't be done very comfortably by simply squeezing more and more people into the existing infrastructure of houses, roads, shops, GP surgeries and schools. Nothing will make the country feel more crowded than an unmanaged surge in population without proper account being taken of water, energy and food security, and new infrastructure.

In short, if we are going to accommodate the population now being projected, we had better start spending some money, and building.