The UK population is growing unusually fast, too. At the present rate of progress, 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. 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.
Jonathan Portes points out that much of the UK is not crowded anyway. All population statistics are by definition slightly out of date and approximate, but while England has roughly 410 people a sq km – the second highest in the EU – Wales has only 150, Northern Ireland 135 and Scotland 70.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.”
Dorling 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.
But is alarm the right response to the population boom? Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research thinks not. “Population is not well discussed in Britain,” he says. “Our self-image is an old and constrained country. 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.”