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Map of the week: Crowded Britain?

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Mark Easton | 14:56 UK time, Monday, 8 September 2008

Is Britain too crowded? The MPs and peers who put their names to today's report calling for a cap on immigration must believe so.

This week's Map of the Week is intended to provide a bit of evidence to go with the debate. In fact, I am posting four maps which look at population density and a measure of what might be described as "crowdedness".

The Cross-Party Group on Balanced Migration sounds moderate and consensual, but what it is arguing for is extremely radical. They want government to introduce policies which would limit Britain's population to around 65 million. Current government estimates suggest immigration will push numbers to around 79 million by 2050.

The politicians, backed by lobby group MigrationWatch, argue that the UK is not big enough to cope with those kind of numbers. Such over-crowding would put an intolerable strain on public services, infrastructure and the environment, they suggest. The economy would struggle to remain competitive.

So, how crowded is Britain?

The first map, using data from the 2001 Census, shows people per hectare. London is clearly the most densely populated part of the UK while large areas remain very sparsely populated.

The second map looks at how that density has changed since the previous census in 1991. Surprisingly perhaps, only London saw a significant increase in density with the East Midlands, North West of England and Glasgow becoming less crowded.

Maps showing population density

The second two maps deal in something the geographers call "population potential", which takes each area and relates it to the densities of the areas around it.

Maps showing population potential

What it attempts to do, if you like, is measure "crowdedness". If your area is densely populated but those nearby are sparsely populated, the figure is low. However, if you are surrounded by lots of people in every direction the figure is high. (I have written a more detailed explanation below.*)

Where's where on these maps?

What these maps show is that, unsurprisingly, people in London have the greatest population pressure upon them and that pressure has increased greatly in a decade. But people in the North West and North East of England and around Glasgow have actually seen population pressure falling between 1991 and 2001.

So is Britain full up? The average density of the UK is 2.45 people per hectare (245 per square km). The island of Jersey (where infrastructure and public services seem to cope) has a density of 7.8 people per hectare. The city of Barcelona has a population density of 158 people per hectare!

To give you some idea where we are internationally, here is a list of all the countries with a population density greater than ours.

174.359 Monaco
67.179 Hong Kong (China)
62.687 Singapore
22.727 Holy See
12.500 Malta
11.047 Bangladesh
10.000 Maldives
9.859 Bahrain
6.977 Barbados
6.500 Nauru
5.911 Mauritius
5.833 Taiwan
5.648 Gaza Strip & West Bank
4.801 Republic of Korea
4.752 Netherlands
4.500 San Marino
4.397 Puerto Rico
3.530 India
3.519 Lebanon
3.498 Japan
3.364 Rwanda
3.333 Tuvalu
3.139 Comoros
3.138 Belgium
3.089 El Salvador
2.975 Haiti
2.941 Grenada
2.924 Sri Lanka
2.902 Israel
2.889 Marshall Islands
2.636 Philippines
2.570 Burundi
2.564 St Vincent & The Grenadines
2.534 Trinidad & Tobago
2.467 Vietnam
2.454 United Kingdom

Clearly, we are never going to have an even spread of population and the isolated nature of some parts of the UK would not be able to sustain high densities without massive infrastructure investment.

But could we accommodate a larger population? The answer is clearly yes, but there would be trade-offs. People have been warning about population growth for hundreds of years and somehow we have managed that increase while getting almost inexorably richer.

The debate, it seems to me, is not 'can we cope?' but 'how would a larger population change our way of life - for better or worse?'.

* Here is the official explanation of "population potential".

Population potential is a measure of how concentrated is the population near to each area. To calculate it, for each area sum the population of each other area of the UK, having divided those populations by the distance in metres to the area of interest. The populations of geographically close areas have a greater effect on any particular area than do the numbers of people in more distant areas.

UPDATE, 13:00, 9 SEPTEMBER: Following the latest Map of the week which looked at population density in the UK, I note some comments make the point that England's population density is significantly higher than the UK figure.

Indeed, what the detailed maps show is significant variation across the country.
I thought it might be useful to post a graph from the Office of National Statistics which looks at the story regionally.

Population graph

Suddenly, it becomes obvious what the story is. If population density is the problem then London should be a basket case. But, in fact, the infrastructure functions pretty well and London is regarded as one of the most successful cities in the world.

One other point I wanted to make. My post was not about 'immigration - right or wrong?'. I was posing a different question about whether it is in our country's best interest to put a limit on our population or allow it to expand. There have been many people who have warned of the risks of rising population on this country but, while lifestyle has changed, Britain has prospered. Is it different this time?


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