Is the UK really “full?”

One of the key themes for UKIP in the recent election was their assertion that Britain “is full”. That the country needs to halt immigration as there is simply no room for any more people. This they claim is particularly true of London, where they blame immigrants for flooding the city and pushing up house prices. The BBC made a good attempt a couple of weeks back to dispel some of these and other myths with its two part programme too many immigrants? But let us explore this specific assertion and why it merely shows the ignorance and petty bigotry of the UKIP/BNP brigade.

Firstly, the assertion that Britain is overcrowded is not borne out by statistics. The current population density of the UK is 259 per kmsq, which puts the UK 3rd for population density in the EU, behind Belgium (367) and Holland (406) respectively. But by comparison the population density is higher still in countries such as Korea (503), Taiwan (646) or even Jersey (844). I don’t see anyone on Jersey complaining about the Island being “full”.

Of course in some respects it is perhaps the population density of the towns and cities that counts, as after all that is where the bulk of people live and where you get problems with overcrowding and public services coming under strain. For example, New York State, ranks only 7th in the US for population density, despite including much of New York City, while Rhode Island (the smallest state) has one of the highest densities yet smallest population.

London has a population density of 5,354 people per kmsq. However this won’t even get London into the top 50 of the most densely populated cities, topped by Manila at 42,857/kmsq. Nor indeed does London, or any UK city, make it into even the top 50 list of European cities by population density. By comparison New York has a population density of 10,630/kmsq, Paris (21,000), Barcelona (15,991), Athens (19,951) and Singapore (7,567).

In short go to any of these cities and tell them London “is full” and they’ll laugh their ass off at you. There is certainly I would argue a need to get away from a London/South East centric population concentration, by for example encouraging new businesses (via tax breaks for example) to set up in the former industrial regions of the UK or rural parts of the country (both of which have seen population declines since the 80’s).

And similarly a growing population requires a commensurate growth in public services (e.g. more doctors, hospitals, council houses, schools, transport infrastructure, etc.) and in the UK we’ve not really seen any concerted effort to accept this fact and ensure expension of services keeps pace with population growth. But to argue the country is “full” is simply not true.

Also we’re assuming that the only thing driving population growth in the UK is inward immigration, when there are of course a number of other factors at work. These include increasing life expectancy (people living longer leads to a rise in population). There is also a rising rate of births within the UK. Official statistics do suggest that it is these demographic changes, not immigration that is the primary driver of UK population growth (although immigration is certainly a large part of the picture).

Of course the implication of that for our UKIP bigots is that if they genuinely believe that the UK is overcrowded, then they should be implementing policies such as cutting child benefits and working tax credits (which incidentally account for many times more of the welfare budget than jobseekers allowance)…or presumably going around and turning off the life support machines of geriatrics and punching babies! Of course such policies are a little less crowd pleasing than UKIP’s tactic of playing the race card and blaming foreigners for everything.

The London boom
As for London, it recently looked like I might get a job in London, so I took the opportunity to check out the London property market. What I found was shocking, many of the adverts at the lower end of the housing market (e.g. buying at around £120k) were cash only sales, those looking to buy with a mortgage need not apply. Any pretence that houses are intended to be places which people live in seems to have been abandoned. Instead homes in London are seen as little more than gambling chips in a casino >:-[. To rent a property I quickly realised I’d be paying well over £1,000 a month for somewhere decent within commuting distance of central London…probably having to stay in one of those cash only properties I was effectively barred from buying! :no:

And my experiences are borne out by several studies (see here and here) which show that the major driver of house prices and rents in London has been the current and past property bubbles as well as a lack of coherent policy from the UK government on housing. This has led to a lack of sufficient house building in an around London, a chronic shortage of council property and affordable homes, leading to the inevitable supply v’s demand issues. Noting that the vast majority of those seeking homes in London are of course British (5 out of 6 to be exact).

Life in the Big Apple
Indeed it’s perhaps worth contrasting the policies of housing in London, with those in, say New York. Anyone who finds London too small, not sufficiently crowded and too cheap with a lack of multiculturalism. Or you just think people in London are way too nice for their own good, go live in New York! :)) (Aside, for some reason I always associate Gershwin’s piano piece “Rhapsody in Blue” with New York).

A few years ago I applied for a job in New York (at the UN of all places!) and did a bit of checking to see how much I’d be paying in rent. Certainly the upper limits of house prices in New York have really no ceiling. We’re talking tens of thousands a month for that penthouse suite on Central Park West. But it is still possible for around $1,000 a month (i.e. less than I could rent in London for!) to rent a modest studio flat on Manhattan or a room in a larger shared flat either on Manhattan or across the river in Queens or Brooklyn. Or if I didn’t mind commuting in from Long Island or New Jersey I could get a house proper for a similar amount. And I would idly note that public transport around NY is generally both better than in London and substantially cheaper too ($2 on the subway v’s £4.50 on the underground), meaning commuting in to save money is a realistic option.

And the reasons for this, despite the fact that New York has a vastly higher population density (plus higher salaries and a much more competitive rental market), are because of the policies of successive administrations in New York. They have enacted rent controls, encouraged the formation of housing cooperatives and affordable home programs, while maintained a stock of social housing (while in the UK Thatcher sold it off!). Even parties on the political right in the US have added their own touch by for example being much quicker to allow rezoning of buildings and areas (e.g. allowing empty office buildings to be turned into apartments), or allowing the demolition and clearing of low rise areas to allow higher density housing to be built.

In conclusion, far from immigrants driving up house prices in London, many immigrants to the UK are in fact the victims of rack rents set by a cosy cartel of casino landlords who seek to exploit them. The contrast with the US, a country supposedly committed to small government, is somewhat baffling. House prices and rents are high in London (and the UK in general) thanks to the failure of Thatcher’s Lassie-faire approach to housing and a failure of governments since then to do anything to reverse this.

And similarly authorities in America, and other countries, recognise that an expanding population means expanding public services to compensate. Expecting a city to function with the same services it had 30 years ago when the population was half the size is just bonkers.

Britain at 70 million
There are certainly some worrying issues arising from the long term trends predicted by the ONS (70 million people by 2027 and a significant drop in those of working age as a proportion of the population). But immigration to the UK is only one of a number of factors driving this population growth (as noted).

Other parts of the world have had to cope with far higher population densities and large inward immigration. These issues are only a problem for the UK if we choose to ignore such predictions and take no action to prepare for such trends. Noting that halting immigration will not halt the growth in the UK’s population (unless you’re advocating birth control measures such as China’s one child policy). It would merely deprive the country of much inward investment and a large number of working age taxpayers at the very moment many of the baby boomer generation are retiring (potentially leaving nobody to pay taxes and thus pay for those pensions).

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8 thoughts on “Is the UK really “full?”

  1. Ever since my youthful days as an architectural student, I have wondered if a possible solution to city problems was to put high density, high rise housing in well separated villages and, seriously reduce the housing density in cities. This could probably be done without taking in any new green-field sites, but would require a novel rethink of transport services.

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    • Sounds like new urbanism, whereby you put people up in high density but low rise apartment buildings, preferably within walking distance of shops, green spaces, etc. and of course good public transport links to other communities/city centres (thus reducing the need for cars).

      Would it work? Possibly, although in the UK we don’t have a great reputation when it comes to planned cities, look at Easterhouse or Milton Keynes!

      Of course other countries have been a bit more successful in this regard.

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