There are queues everywhere in Britain, says Rod Liddle. The country has long since reached saturation point and it’s time for the government to admit that we have a problem
There were two stories in our morning newspapers this week which seemed at first sight unrelated. The first was a report from the Local Government Association warning the government that council tax charges might need to rise by as much as 6 per cent because the number of immigrants to the UK had hitherto not been properly accounted for. Immigrants placed a new and costly burden on local councils and there were many more of them than had previously been imagined.
The other story was an announcement from the transport minister, Stephen Ladyman, that the government intended to overhaul road speed limits and, in most cases, impose rather stricter limits.
Don’t worry; I’m not about to argue that the need for new and tougher speed limits is the result of Poles and Kazakhs tearing around our green lanes in second-hand Ford Cosworths. But it is nonetheless the case that these two stories — both of them, I suspect, annoying to the average person, although not catastrophic — are indirectly linked. They are both, in their way, functions of what will be by far the biggest problem facing our country in the next 20 or 30 years — overpopulation. And the reason that we will do nothing about it is twofold: first, there is no political will to deal with it. If you are on the Left, you are inclined to welcome immigration for perfectly well-meaning, historical reasons. If you are on the Right, you will most likely adopt the stance which characterised both the Reagan and Thatcher administrations — and which continues under New Labour today — that matters of migration and family size should be left to the free market and the whim of the individual. So, in both cases, the political response is to do nothing other than that discredited old policy of ‘predict and provide’.
The second problem is this. To be sure, the voter does not remotely enjoy the effects of overpopulation. In a YouGov survey carried out in April this year, seven out of ten British adults thought there were ‘too many’ people in the country. But aside from those nasty moments when issues of race muddy the waters, people do not jump up and down about our increasingly crowded island. They become irritated and confused by the small-scale miseries it inflicts upon their lives, but not livid. The effect is incremental, rather than sudden. And so the people do not complain either.
Clearly, the reason we have a slightly increasing death rate on our rural roads is not that people are driving more recklessly — there is not a shred of evidence for this — but that those rural roads are far more crowded than they once were. The average speed one can attain for a car journey in central London is now lower than eight miles per hour; perhaps quite soon the rural south-east of England will enjoy similarly languorous travel.
Equally clearly, the local authorities which fired that shot across the bows of the Home Secretary are complaining, primarily, about an enormous influx of people into certain already crowded boroughs. It is the weight of numbers, primarily, that is the problem, in terms of housing, health, education and social services — not nationality (although that, of course, will have its own deleterious effect). And here we have an interesting conundrum. We were told that the British economy needed an influx of cheap foreign labour from the former ‘Eastern’ (now ‘Central’) Europe. It was an argument that I never swallowed, not because I hate Poles or Slovaks but for perfectly rational economic reasons which are now beginning to glimmer through. A 6 per cent increase in the council charge is the first of many levies we will have to pay for our gastarbeiter. But I digress.
If you live in the south-east of England you will already be familiar with the iniquities imposed by overpopulation: the railway network which collapses under the weight of numbers, making rush hour a misery and almost every hour a rush hour; the waiting list for treatment at your local hospital; the bulging school rolls; the field that was once a pleasant place to stroll through or for the kids to play in but which is now covered in densely packed Barratt Homes, each with a disabled access ramp and a placebo of a garden — eight square foot of nothing; the incessant angry growl of traffic during the day, the eerily pale mauve night sky, deprived of its right to darkness by the street lights; the queues everywhere, for everything. There are the side effects, too, that you may not have noticed, or may not have put down to increasing population density. You cannot water your garden because there is not enough of the stuff to go around (and there will be even less when Prescott has paved the M11 corridor and east Kent). There is the strange re-occurrence of TB in our inner cities. Just recently the University of Ulster published a paper in the British Journal of Nursing which suggested that overcrowding in specialist hospitals (in England) might be responsible for the prevalence of MRSA. And there are those softer, more ephemeral iniquities; the lack of community in your town, caused by an endlessly transitory population and the sense of alienation which this engenders; the loss of habitat for our indigenous wildlife.
Another problem is that there are no reliable figures to quantify the true extent of what, anecdotally, we know to be true. We can be sure that Britain is one of the ten or 15 most crowded countries on earth and that its population density is three times that of the European average (excluding Russia). We are aware, too, that the Government Actuary’s Department predicts that our population will increase by at least five million (most of them in the south-east) by 2036. Each year — officially — an extra 200,000 people are alive in Britain; that’s equivalent to a new, medium-sized city — Sunderland, for example — every 12 months. But that’s only the official figure, which nobody in their right mind would take at face value — the government has already admitted that it hasn’t a clue about how many people have actually entered the country in the past ten years. They simply do not know and, more than that, they are not even able to hazard a guess. This is the reason for the LGA’s sudden bleating about the need to increase council tax immediately: the government did not assess the numbers of incomers correctly. The real figure is certain to be much much higher than that. To give you a clue of how wildly the government has underestimated the population increase, its actuarial department in 2001 predicted a population growth of 0.28 per cent year on year; whereas, since that date, the increase has actually been 0.64 per cent, year on year — without taking into account the vast numbers of illegal immigrants. It is worth pointing out that the latest estimates for population growth are not solely about immigration — some 50 per cent of the increase in population is down to ‘natural’ causes: greater life expectancy, an ageing population.
It is, on the face of it, quite astonishing that no political organisation, outside of those Green fringes (and even they find the subject politically incorrect and rather tricky), has made much of a noise about this most basic of political problems. That it is a problem is surely beyond dispute. It is not simply a case of population density (which would be bad enough); the real issue is the number of people in an area relative to its resources and the capacity of the environment to sustain meaningful human activity. By any measure, when you examine our choked and straining infrastructure, the crime rates, the inability of any of our familiar statutory institutions to cope with their workloads, that the south-east of England has long since reached saturatio
n point. And the south-west of England will shortly follow: over the past five years it has experienced the highest year-on-year increase in population, and that is predicted to increase at a still more rapid rate in the years to come.
It is perfectly reasonable to sit in a dog sled and worry about what is happening to glaciers in an agreeable part of northern Norway, just as it is reasonable to mildly berate the USA for its reluctance to sign up to the Kyoto protocols. But here is an environmental and social catastrophe — admittedly a comparatively slow catastrophe — taking place in a country where something can actually be done about it, something more meaningful than a photo opportunity or a snappy soundbite. But don’t hold your breath.