Population

London will never be ‘full up’

Ignore the miserabilism about London's population hitting 10million - this great city can handle it.

‘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?

The answer lies in the fact that London, like other great cities of the modern era, has continually evolved to accommodate ever greater numbers of people, through developing more effective infrastructure, technology and housing plans. So in the nineteenth century, as the population increased so did the ambitions for remaking and renewing London. Major municipal investments in water works, sewage facilities and public health not only made London a nicer, cleaner place to live - they also dramatically reduced mortality in the capital. Also, cheaper fares and improved transport meant that more areas became London-commutable, such as Tottenham and East Ham, taking the pressure off central London in terms of demand for accommodation and space.

To suggest that such a remoulding of a city around new arrivals and growing numbers cannot be achieved again is really a state of mind rather than a scientific fact. And sadly, this state of mind now impacts on many of our political leaders. For every major infrastructural development that is announced, such as the regeneration of Stratford or the development of the area around Battersea, another project seems to get kicked into the long grass, whether it’s the construction of a new runway at Heathrow or the development of brownfield sites in the environs surrounding London, like the Thames Gateway. It is good to hear that there is currently an ‘explosion’ in plans for more high-rise buildings in London, with 230 in the pipeline, but there’s still more that London could do to move upwards and provide space for its growing population in the skies and clouds.

Is there any better example than New York City? Its population density is 10,725 people per square kilometre compared with London’s 5,285 per square kilometre. This is because New Yorkers have moved up from the ground. And to paraphrase PJ O’Rourke, commenting on population growth and density, ‘Manhattan is a pretty good place to live’.

Due in part to the desire of many millions of people to live here, London has long been known as the first ‘world city’. It is a cultural, economic and social powerhouse. To say that it is ‘full’, and to impose upon it restrictive migration policies or intrusive initiatives designed to discourage too much breeding, would do nothing to improve life here. On the contrary, it would be a broadside against everything that makes London great, including its continually changing nature that has allowed it to accommodate so many people over such great periods of history.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

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