Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Is the country full?

Julian Ware-Lane’s blog often has some interesting data, sometimes enlightening, other times rather meaningless. The latest thought-provoking post questions whether the country is “full up”.

On the basis of the data he presents, he says no. But the data does not address what is meant by a country being “full up” in today’s global world.

Prior to globalisation you could argue that a country is “full up” when its population’s demands exceed the resources (food, water, fuel etc.) available. But that ignores the logistical challenges that arise when all the coal is in one part of the country, the best arable land in another, the water predominantly in one corner and the population in the opposite corner! Thus parts of the country could be “full up” whilst other parts are not.

Transport (originally canals, later railways) enabled the industrial revolution in England by addressing these logistical issues meaning that we could have centres of industry and population that relied on more distant areas of the country for the resources necessary to operate effectively.

One of the arguments for globalisation was that this scaled up the above national solution to a global scale. Consequently some areas (Singapore and Hong Kong being possibly the extreme examples) could “sustain” populations completely out of scale with their natural resources. The concept of being “full up” then has even less meaning.

So what is it that makes people say the country (UK or England) is “full up”? Quite clearly it is not but there are strains due to problems of geographical distribution.

For instance, overall in the North East (of England) we are nothing like “full-up”. We have a mix of a few densely populated cities and metropolitan areas, a number of market towns, a large number of ex-mining towns and villages, numerous agricultural villages and oodles of empty space. We complain a bit about National planning policies trying to force extra housing on the market towns, and we complain about the lack of employment and services in the ex-mining towns and all the villages.

Perversely large numbers migrate from the North East (and other regions) to London and the South East which clearly has a far higher population density than the rest of the country. This is largely because of the imbalance of employment and economic opportunity. I suspect it is the effect of migration into the South East that is causing people in that region to claim we are “full up”.

But we have gas and oil pipelines and power lines funnelling fuel and power into that region. The motorway network is “centred” on the South East and seems to be full of lorries shipping goods across the country. Meanwhile Felixstowe and Heathrow are massive centres for the importation of food and consumer goods. London has a desalination plant and we regularly hear news stories about pipelines or canals to transport water from the North to the South East.

It is not shortages of the traditional resources (food, water, fuel) that are the causes of the “full up” claims. It is the availability of quality employment and essential services (education, health, housing) that are the most quoted problems. This is not purely a function of the number of people in a region but of the willingness of government to do anything about the situation.

Government needs to do two things:

  1. To seriously address the high level issues that maintain regional economic and power inequalities – particularly in the availability of high quality secure work.
  2. Be willing to provide public services to match the population and to promote a housing policy that means that the availability of reasonable quality affordable housing to let and buy matches the population.

But if you have a laissez-faire government that believes in minimum intervention and a small state with “the market providing”, you will get imbalances and a failure to ensure employment and services. But that is not because the country is “full up” it’s because the country (i.e. us) won’t or can’t do anything about inequalities in the provision of employment and services.

Perhaps we should.

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One thought on “Is the country full?

  1. I will pretend that your opening comments are praise! I do confess to often writing simplistic posts, but there are reasons for this. For instance, I am not an expert on very much, if anything, and so I cannot write long, authoritative posts on much. Another excuse (reason) is that I like punchy articles when I am browsing and attempt the same in my writing. In this instance I was aware of a large table of data and thought a brief preamble suited it best.

    I also hope to encourage debate – I do not have all the answers, even if I have a lot of opinions!

    On this occasion, though, I did get rather fed up with people (usually from UKIP) who trot out how we are full up with no reasonable explanation of how they arrived at that opinion. I have, therefore, a least offered a few facts.

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