Last week, an august body known as Eurostat, made some rather bold predictions. Eurostat is the statistics office of the European Union and it took it upon itself to undertake some guesswork about what would happen to European populations over the next 50 years.
Their published results are remarkable. Not in terms of the overall population of the 27 states making up the EU, which is set to increase from a current 495 million to 520 million by 2035 and thereafter to start declining to around 505 million by 2060. The remarkability concerns the population totals for individual countries which are hugely variable. Most of the relatively poor accession states will experience dramatic population declines, of between 18% (Poland) and 28% (Bulgaria). More surprising, Germany will loose 12 million people, 14% of its current population and cease to be the largest state within the EU. That rather weighty burden will be passed to the UK, which, it is anticipated, will grow from around 61 million today to 77 million in 2060.
There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of supporting evidence for all this. The population changes have little to do with birth/death rates which will remain broadly neutral and a lot to do with patterns of migration. I can’t help thinking that what they have done is simply to have taken current trends and projected them forward far into the future. But this is a bit like saying because it’s windy today, it will still be windy in three weeks time. In other words, it’s all just guesswork, based on extrapolation of the near past into the far future.
But then another thought occurs. In terms of planning and the built environment, population projection is fundamental. So maybe we should take it seriously.
And then another thought. Why should we take this lying down? Who says we have to house 16 million extra people by 2060. Or Germany has to lose 12 million, or Bulgaria 2 million? Would it not be more sensible to pursue policies which encourage population stability? Why are we acting as though population is stuff that just happens to us and our job is to passively react to it?
Then another subversive thought. An extra 16 million people in the UK equates to around 8 million new homes at current household formation rates. Divide that by 50 (for the number of years between now-ish and 2060) and you get 160,000 new houses a year, just about the amount we managed to build before the credit crunch had other ideas.
Or, put another way, 8 million new homes is around a thousand eco towns of 8,000 homes apiece. Assuming that nearly all of these 16 million extra people would want to live in the South East, a region which measures approx 32,000 square miles (that’s 200 x 160), that means there would be nowhere south of Derby where you’d ever be more than six miles from an eco-town. That’s a comforting thought.
But what worries me even more is what is going to happen to Germany in this Eurostat scenario, where there will be approximately six million empty homes. And thousands of kilometres of empty autobahns. And all those spiffingly fast trains with no one on them. Germany already has a built infrastructure capable of handling a population nearly double what it is now. For what purpose? As a manufacturing powerhouse, Germany in 2060 will be run by robots and Germans will be largely redundant. Has anyone asked them how they feel about this future? Has anyone asked us?
I know it’s uncool to talk about optimal population levels, but without a population strategy, what is the point of having a planning system? That’s the sixth question mark in this blog entry: that’s enough for one evening.