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Is the UK over-crowded?

Rex Walford introduces the 2005 Young Geographer of the Year competition

"Hell is other people" said the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. A succinct view that often mirrors the feelings of those who live in over-crowded places, whether in developing or developed countries. World population continues to grow inexorably, despite birth-control and natural disasters.

In the UK, the population growth rate is relatively slow at present, but that should not disguise the fact that when the first census was taken in 1801, the figure was only 10.5 million. A hundred years later that figure had multiplied by nearly four and our latest (2001) census figures record a figure of nearly 60 million.

So is Britain getting to population saturation point? A news item last December reported that the deputy prime minister's plan to build 720,000 new homes in the South East over the next 20 years had been voted down by the South East of England Regional Assembly: "There just isn't enough room in the south east; it's already too crowded," said a spokesperson for the assembly.

This comment may be seen as simplistic since there is clearly enough physical space for the extra houses, but there is a legitimate concern about the amount of land used for housing in England and whether there are adequate roads, employment, utilities, and so on.

As early as the 1930s, the maps of the pioneering Land Use Survey, instituted by geographer Dudley Stamp, drew attention to the increasing population in rural areas with their stark colouring, which showed the tentacles of urban growth beginning to stretch into the countryside. Much more has happened since: new towns, the spread of cities into conurbations.

One argument is that if we need more houses they should be built in the less populated and remoter parts. Yet there is no sign that this imbalance will be put right by itself. It is these remoter areas (the Highlands of Scotland, parts of Wales) which have suffered most from population decline in the past half-century. The areas which show the greatest growth (the South East, the South Midlands, East Anglia) are those which are closest to the capital. London seems to act like an inexorable magnet in population terms. The demography of the outlying areas also shows a drift to the South by the young, despite vigorous efforts by some regional authorities to promote life in cities outside London.

Another point of view asserts that the pressure of more people on existing resources will cause problems wherever houses are built, that there is a finite limit to land capacity, and that the UK should seek to limit population growth by one means or another. Which leads towards the thorny topics of passport controls, the extent to which we should abide by EU laws, immigration policy, and the possible encouragement of limitation to birth-rates.

The question "Is the UK in 2005 overpopulated?" seems absurd when you are standing alone on a Scottish moorland or a Welsh mountain enjoying the solitude, but rather more relevant when you are fighting for a place on a commuter-train in the London rush-hour or living in a tower-block in an urban conurbation.

Yet all things are relative - look at the population densities of Singapore or the Netherlands and compare them with the UK. There is, of course, more to the argument than this, but there is no doubt that the issue is one that affects the lives of many in Britain.

Strangely enough, though population figures prominently in GCSE and A-level syllabuses, it is usually presented in international or continental terms: case-studies in current textbooks are invariably from developing countries.

The geography of the UK in this sphere has been overlooked by schools in the past decade. Yet it can be approached from many different perspectives (town versus country, conservation versus development, North versus South, national versus international needs and desires) and will deeply affect the lives of future British citizens. Hence the choice of topic for the 2005 Young Geographer of the Year competition.

Rex Walford is a fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He was formerly head of the department of education at the University of Cambridge

* Full details of how to enter the 2005 Young Geographer of the Year Competition on page 2

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