‘Whether or not our political class has the ability or the will to control immigration, we have to accept that many of the millions who have come to this country in the last two decades are here to stay, and will need to be housed. Without a massive expansion of the housing stock, prices will continue to rise and the pressure on planning laws and infrastructure will become increasingly difficult to manage. As a result we face a question that concerns every resident of Britain, and which must be addressed with true public spirit: how we should build.’
England is, by most measurements, very densely populated, which is partly why people are not very keen on more people coming here, although some would disagree with this statement. Stephen Nickell, one of the leaders of the Office for Budget Responsibility, said last week that there is plenty of space so we shouldn’t be bothered that our borders basically resemble the Battle of Helm’s Deep. ‘One argument said is we’re a small island, not much room,’ he said. ‘On the other hand, of course, there’s masses of room. The urbanised part of Britain occupies less than 10% of the surface area. The urbanised part of Surrey occupies less of Surrey than golf courses.’
Up to a point, but it’s best to ignore overall population density when talking about Britain. Most migrants are moving into just three regions, London, the South East and East of England, which between them (according to the latest statistics) contain 22,655, 656 people living in just 39,787 square kilometres, a population density of 569/square kilometre. Taking aside countries with a population below one million, that would put ‘Greater Greater London’ in 7th place worldwide, between Mauritius and South Korea, and way ahead in Europe.
With Britain’s population set to expand by 10 million in the next 25 years, and most of the demand being for housing being in the south-east, I’d like to suggest a truly radical proposal: that we could and should satisfy all (or most of) our housing needs by building entirely in London.
Being the most right-wing member of the London metropolitan liberal elite (a very minor, inconsequential member but I’m doing my best), I belong to that minority of reactionaries who prefer densely packed environments.
Oh dear. I'm with the liberals... pic.twitter.com/PXA9EjOLWn
— Tim Montgomerie ن (@montie) November 29, 2014
Conservatives don’t tend to be urbanophiles, partly due to a fondness for rural life and tradition, and partly because we’re just scared of more things generally. But London isn’t really that urban, as these graphs of density show, and in reality it’s a collection of suburbs spread over quite a large area.
— Max Roser (@MaxCRoser) December 9, 2014
If London took on the housing density of even Paris it could easily expand to accommodate 10, 12 or even 15 million people. Does this sound crazy? Possibly, but there are large parts of the city that have both poor quality and low density housing, and there is far more demand and capacity for more. How many homes could be built if London copied New York by having its railways lines laid below ground? It would be enormously expensive, but the sale of property would cover a great deal; likewise if, say, the Westway was rebuilt underground and a new avenue in Notting Hill was created as a result, that would surely make a profit as well as accommodating more people.
The Green Belt issue is not just about preserving the countryside, but about creating urban spaces that people want to live in; high density, compact cities offer many advantages over suburban sprawl, and in most ways are nicer to live in.
What London basically needs is a Baron Haussmann who will rebuild the city, the only downside being that it would probably take some sort of authoritarian dictator to ride roughshod over property rights. Apart from that caveat, it’s a foolproof plan.