Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Britain needs a grand masterplan to keep up with population growth

London’s population had shrank to just 6.7M people in 1988, but then the city started growing again. The 2011 London Plan expected it to take a further ten years for the city’s population to reach 8.4M – instead growth accelerated and it took just two years, with that level being reached in mid 2013, and currently increasing by 110,000 people every year.

In early February 2015, it passed 8.6M, the same size as London’s previous peak, reached in 1939. The city is expected to reach 10.7M by 2037.  That 60%growth over just short of 50 years sounds almost like a tale from the developing world, not from a very mature European city that many people had dismissed as past her prime.

The UK’s population growth has been just as astounding. In the 37 years between 1964 and 2001 the population grew by 5M from its 54.1M base.  Subsequent growth has been quicker, with a further 5M people added in the subsequent 12 years to 2013, increasing at a rate of 400,000 per year, equal to each year a city the size of Bristol suddenly appearing.  At 64.1M, the UK’s population has just surpassed that of the European part of France (omitting its overseas Departements), making it the second most populous country in the EU. Provided the Scots decide to continue being part of the UK, the UK’s population is projected to hit 70M by the mid 2020s and to reach 74M by 2038 – growth equal to a whole extra London having been created in the 25 years from 2013. Some people foresee the UK overtaking Germany as the most populous EU country by 2043.

France and Germany already have very well developed transport networks to support their populations  - Germany has 12,900 km of motorway, France has 11,500km, but Britain languishes with just 3,700km. France currently operates more than 2,000km of high speed rail, Germany has 1,300km in operation, and the UK has just 113km currently running. France and Germany are also ahead in terms of number of cities with metros and trams, and in terms of cycling facilities in their major cities. There is a quite a shortfall for the UK to make up, even ignoring such rapid growth in population.

Britain is rightly very proud of its rich industrial heritage of excellent infrastructure created in Victorian times by pioneering civil engineers, and much of it remains in use today. Indeed, current problems with Britain’s infrastructure is often blamed on its age. However in 1901, just before Queen Victoria’s death, the current territory of the UK had a population of just 32M, so the Victorians created an infrastructure to cope with just half of today’s population.

There needs to be an urgent debate and planning for this rapid increase in population – and not just about the wisdom of immigration as currently. Britain’s infrastructure systems are largely at breaking point, with some of the most intensively used motorways, railways and runways in the World. A grand vision is required. A National Infrastructure Plan is needed that examines all of these trends and which devises national strategies for how all of these people will live, travel, be educated, work and socialise.

Current UK population density is about 270 people per square kilometre, which doesn’t sound too challenging, but the wide open spaces of northern Scotland hide a problem – England in particular is one of the densest populated major countries in the world, with well over 400 people per square kilometre, and more than 450 people in its SE corner, against about 70 in Scotland.  This English population density exceeds that of Japan and is approaching South Korean levels. So there is very little space for new infrastructure, exacerbated by a high environmental expectations and a strict planning regime.

However everyone wants increased reliability for all of our infrastructure systems – both the economic ones and the social ones. Economic infrastructure takes up most space and tends to be the most contentious. Everyone wants easy access to the services provided by water reservoirs, sewage treatment works, motorways, railways and airports, but not many people fancy having them plonked next door to them. Finding places to situate all these new facilities needs very long term planning, if we are not to accidentally mix our next generation of new garden cities with our new airport runway noise contours. And perhaps there may be economies if we consider the provision of all of these new infrastructure systems and elements holistically?

Additionally the UK is committed to a major greening of its way of living, of which infrastructure changes will need to play a big part. The 2008 Climate Change Act committed Britain to an 80% reduction in territorial carbon emissions, and that made no allowance for all that extra population growth, possibly a third more than those living in the country at the base date of 1998 chosen by that piece of legislation. This means instead a rather more painful 85% reduction per head in carbon emissions will be needed.

Britain will need many more roads, railways and reservoirs. It will need many more homes and shops and offices and factories. It will need more schools, hospitals and universities. It will need a grand masterplan – and a planning system that allows those to be created in time to ensure that Britain’s people continue to be sustained by world-class infrastructure that enables them to maintain the standard of living to which they aspire. Take Crossrail as an example, it will have taken more than 30 years of planning before it will have come to fruition. The challenge for HS2 is not whether it is too ambitious, but whether it is ambitious enough. And what about HS3, HS4 and HS5. The national debate and intense joined-up masterplanning for all of these new assets and facilities needs to start now.

  • Tim Chapman is infrastructure director at Arup

Readers' comments (1)

  • Everyone knows the impact of new transportation links, economic and urban development follows. One only has to look at what happened when London built its early railways and the suburbs formed around them. HS2 should be the most significant UK infrastructure development of this century. An enormous conduit to export London's wealth northward and to allow associated infrastructure development to be focused in the midlands and the North of England where its much more cost effective to build. HS2 should not be a device to save 30min of time but a realignment of the UK.

    At least we should buy the land needed to allow another 2 tracks to be built in each direction. a second bite is preferable to the debacle of our original motorway building program and subsequent widening work that followed because we did not buy an additional 7m of land in the original procurement process.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.