09 February 2005

Crowded Island?

I've been busy with work and other things for a couple of months, and now, catching up on my Bloglines subscriptions, I've come across a couple of pieces by Tim Worstall which need comment.

Tim says here, and repeats later, that [Britain] has "both a small crowded island and a constipated planning system". I wouldn't have thought he would have fallen for that one. Britain is not at all crowded, but the British crowd together through choice and because of a planning system which is not merely constipated but perverse and disastrous.

What proportion of Britain is "built up"? The CIA reckons we have a land area of 241000 sq km, and 372000 km of roads. If to be built up you need to be within 20m of a road, that puts an upper limit on built-up Britain of 15000 sq km, or 6% of the total land area. Defra describes 33000sq km as "Urban or other", though without revealing what "other" is that's not tremendously useful. Even if it includes stuff like Richmond Park, it still seems high to me.

If we had ten times the current population in Britain, then it would be crowded.

Why is it then such a common piece of received wisdom that Britain is crowded?

I hinted at the answer before: although Britain isn't crowded, the British are very much a crowd. An eighth of us live in 1500 sq km of Greater London. That's really crowded. If the whole island were populated at that density, we would have the same population as India.

Most of the population lives, if not in London, in similar conditions. The vast majority of the country which is empty, nobody sees, because, um, nobody lives there. Even people in rural towns and villages live near other towns and villages, and don't realise how much of the country isn't near any towns and villages. They see the towns growing and the open spaces disappearing, and fear that there will be none left, but it is the space near them that is being filled, because it is near people, and they do not realise that most of the country is not near anyone.

We live crowded, in part, because we are city-dwellers, or, in other words, civilised. Our style of living requires living close to lots of other people to do lots of different specialised jobs. Most of those who complain about the crowded conditions of Britain will explain that they can't possibly move to much cheaper remote areas, because they won't get work, or they won't be able to do a lot of what they like to do.

But there is the second factor. The best places to live are on the edge between the city, with its civilised amenities, and the countryside, with its space and pretty landscapes and fresh air. It is expensive to live in such places, so the people living there are the rich and the powerful. If you build on the countryside next to them, you're having negligible effect on the balance of the country as a whole, but you have a severe effect on those rich and powerful people who no longer have the best of both worlds, but are now part of the urban sprawl. They would have to "trade up" again to move to the new "ideal homes" on the new edge of the urban area.

If one were very cynical about politics, he might expect that a policy would come about that would specifically protect from development the countryside around major cities, thereby defending the privileged position of the currently most-valuable living area, at the cost of everybody else being crammed into the cities or isolated in remote areas.

But then, who would be that cynical?

(Update: Tim follows up)

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