‘Hell is a city much like London - A populous and a smoky city.’
Might that colourful comment have been made by the anti-population growth lobby group Population Matters (PM), following the news this week that London’s population is set to hit 10million for the first time? Or maybe PM patron David Attenborough said it? After all, last year Attenborough claimed that humans ‘are a plague on the Earth’.
Actually, it was the British poet Shelley who spoke those lines about London, back in 1819, when the city was just a fraction of the size it is today, with a population of around 1.5million. Observers of a Malthusian temper have long complained about the size of the population in London. Over the years notable commentators have dubbed London’s population a growing ‘ulcer’, ‘tumorous’, ‘packed to blackness’, even as ‘an elephantitis sucking into its gorged system half the life and the blood and the bone of rural districts’. And this week’s projections by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) that the population of London is set to hit eight digits some time in the next 15 years has caused uproar among the Malthusian-minded groups still around today.
Take Simon Ross, chief executive of PM. He sorely lacks the poetic flourish of Shelley, declaring that ‘[Londoners’] lives are already deteriorating under the pressure of this constant increase in numbers’. But Ross is no UKIPper. Yes, he longs for a ‘balanced migration’ strategy, but he doesn’t discriminate - it isn’t just foreigners whose numbers he is concerned about; he’s worried about breeding folk in general. ‘We call again on the government to encourage smaller families, strengthen measures to reduce unplanned pregnancies, [and] phase in the ending of subsidies for larger families’, he says.
Through the misanthropic eyes of Ross and others, the issue is simple: ‘More people means more hardship and mayhem.’ In that case, how do we explain the fact that a fivefold increase in the number of people living in London over the past two centuries coincided with a massive improvement in living standards and life expectancy in the city over the same period?