Tue Oct 30th, 2007 at 06:42:20 PM EST
Officially, the population of Britain is about 65 million, with estimates of increase suggesting that it might rise to 70 or maybe 75 million by 2030, or 2050 or some other fantasy time in the future we don't have to plan for.
However, even that may not be the end of the story, the Independent claims that the present real population may be much higher.
It is the statistic that dare not speak its name, though eventually it must. ......So don't forget you read it here first: the population of the UK is presently somewhere between 77 and 80 million.
Consumption - that's the thing. Based on what we eat, one big supermarket chain reckons there are 80 million people living in the UK. The demand for food is a reliable indicator; as Sir Richard Branson says, you can have all the money in the world but you can only eat onelunch and one dinner. I have a second, respectable, source. A major, non-commercial agricultural institution reckons there are 77 million of us in the UK. Again, its reckoning is based on what we eat.
However, whether the population is 65 million or 80 million, the reason why most commentators complain is that at least a third of that population, and probably the majority of that phantom population, are crammed into the south east. As that is where the commentators are also based, their impression is of a country desperately over-crowded.
Again, officially the population of London is a paltry 7 million. However, the population of the "Home Counties", ie a circle approx 100 miles around london, is officially nearly 20 million, plus who knows how many unregistered. After all, most of the unregistered are where the money and opportunities are.
And the problem is, the South East doesn't work. Not anymore. Slowly, year by year, London is suffocating and fewer swollen pegs are fitting in their holes.
Most of the wealth of the South East is generated in the two closely related financial districts of The City and Docklands. Most of the rest, including West End shopping, Government department, the Law courts etc, are sited within the North Circular road, roughly a semi-circle 6 miles in radius. Which means that during the rush hour over 10 million people commute into London every day, whilst a few million more are driving their children to school, terrified of allowing their children to share the crowded roads.
The road and rail network in the South East was not designed for this load. Railways have suffered from decades of under-investment and some parts of the network seem to be held together more by habit than engineering. Most commuters will talk of regular snarl-ups which render them hours late for their journeys.
Although roads have seen considerable investment, the fact is that, with so few alternatives, all of the roads are overloaded. The M25 will only see significant tailing off of traffic between midnight and six in the morning on any given day. Any severe hold up at a critical time, however quickly resolved, will have consequences throughout the rest of the day.
All in all, it's a barely-integrated transport network that has difficulty coping at the best of times. One where the most minor giltch at the wrong moment will quickly create terrible problems. The difficulty is that, however much you improve the roads and rails; at some point they will all be competing for the same space, creating yet more bottlenecks. That is the failure of the much-vaunted CrossRail, at great expense it doesn't actually solve any problems, simply displaces them a couple of miles further on
However, transport is by no means the only problem. The fact is that the south east is running out of space. Urban sprawl radiates away from london in every direction. The area up to 25 miles from the centre is almost entirely built upon. Significant stretches, such as towards Reading in the West, Milton Keynes in the north, Brighton in the South, Southend and Gillingham either side of the Thames, take urbanisation much further out. The rest of the S East is mostly either some of the best farmland in the country or too far from the useful transport infrastructure to be part of a solution.
Which all means that the prices for accomodation are astronomical. House prices are now hovering at around 8 times the average annual wage which, for a huge number of people makes owning a house too expensive. Thanks to Margaret Thatcher selling off nearly the entire stock of social housing in the South East, renting is now almost entirely in the private sector and is far from being a cheap or even a convenient option.
The Government talk about using "brownfield" sites for new builds and, yes, there are opportunities, but nowhere near enough to solve the problem. Not in such a way as it will make housing more affordable. And that then reveals a deeper problem.
Because there are certain people whom you need to have around to make a city run, even if you're unwilling to pay them very much. Emergency services are obvious, particularly nurses and firemen who are slowly being squeezed out of the south east. The only nurses who can afford to be here are either living with their parents or married to somebody a lot better paid. But also it's the same with waiters, teachers, sandwich shop managers, dustmen, bus drivers. In fact, you name a poorly paid ancillary service and they're understaffed because fewer and fewer of them can afford to live here. Once they could have moved to the suburbs and commuted. But prices fall so slowly by distance now that commuting itself becomes unaffordable.
Maybe it doesn't matter at the moment, but each year the pool of people able to afford to work in london diminishes. Maybe people over 30 won't move away, but those who are single, have degrees or have just worked it out are slipping away. Well away from London in Britain and abroad.
The South East of Britain has always been the driest corner of the country. Indeed, Clacton in Essex is officially dry enough to be classed as a desert. The deluge of this summer has meant that this year has been the first time in nearly a decade when there wasn't an official water shortage somewhere in the region. If the population wasn't to increase at all, there would still be water supply problems most years yet, with every person that moves into the South East the strain becomes worse. Water for the county of Essex comes from Norfolk, itself facing a shortage. So much so that Norfolk has a continuous objection, overriden by Central Govt, to any further development in Essex.
The aquifers that sustained the area in times of drought are now being tapped into on almost a permanent basis. A couple of years without excessive rain will undoubtedly result in water rationing as there are simply no more supplies to tap.
Geology & Climate change
After the Ice age, the north of Britain began to rise as it was released from the burden of billions of tons of ice. Unfortunately, for every action, there is a reaction and that means that the South East is gradually sinking. The Thames barrier was built because, gradually, year by year the tides are reaching higher up the banks of the river. Storm surges would now be capable of regularly inundating the City, if they weren't held at bay.
Yet climate change is now accelerating this process. The barrier will have to be replaced by something much more substantial by 2030. Yet it is the Thames Gateway, aka the floodplain that will be increasingly inundated by these changes, that is currently the last best hope of building the vast number of houses needed to cope with population growth.
Government in Britain has become more about the illusion of control matched by the increasing abdication of general responsibility for the well-being of the country. The situation in the South East of Britain has been allowed to spiral out of control to the extent that it is almost beyond saving. Yet, no doubt, all will claim they never saw it coming yet the warning signs have been there for decades.
More and more people are cramming in to try to claim some of the wealth supposedly trickling down from the increasingly fevered activity in the financial districts. Yet, year on year, those who do the basic jobs are being squeezed out as new, previously unattractive areas are discovered to be residentially desirable. The wealthy move in and the rest move on until finally, squeezed too far, the next generation leaves. They are not being replaced, and London becomes increasingly a non-viable environment because rich people still need the poor to clean up after them. It's no good saying the immigrants will come in and replace them if they have nowhere to live and can't afford the cost of living.
London is dying like a dinosaur. It is mortally wounded, but it will take years before the message gets through.