Demographic trends in the United Kingdom, such as these discussed in the report on Demographic Change and the Environment, show an ongoing population growth in the south-east of England. With London being the dominating city in the UK’s economy, this is little surprising, as key industries but also most key institutions are still located in the capital city. This is one major reason why the southeast is like a population magnet that will have to find strategies to cope with an increasing population if these conditions persist. Demographic trends do also predict a slowdown in population increase over the next decades, with an aging society and declining birth rates as they can already be observed in Germany or most Easter European countries. All trends include challenges for policy making and planning, which is why population projections play a key role for urban planners to face future challenges in their decision-making. The Greater London Authority as the key administrative body for the most populous area in the UK (see map) released such projections on borough level to the year 2031, including population estimates for the past years (see London Datastore) which I have used for some of my research recently. Following a series of population maps created from this data by Spatial Analysis I used this data to create a population cartogram animation for the 30 years covered by this data which shows the changing shares of the population within the boroughs of Greater London, including a colour code for the net migration (taking population change, births and deaths into account). This is how the London population trends look like:
From a cartographic perspective is should be noted that using a colour coded choropleth map, such as this one showing net migration should’t be done when showing absolute values on a conventional map projection, as this can result in a misleading representation of the underlying information. In the context of a population cartogram however, this makes more sense, especially when the numbers represented by the colour shades relate to the reprojected cartogram indicator, which they apparently do in this case. Therefore the total number of people that live in each borough and the net migration can be understood in relation to each other. To point out a major increase/decline, I used red/blue to indicate the most significant changes.
The animation shows the slow but steady relative growth of mainly the easter boroughs, which can be observed when closely looking at the changing shapes of the boroughs (note that the cartogram shows changing proportions). The further the projections go into the future, the more uncertain the trends are, but a general picture that emerges is that of a slowdown in growth inside Greater London (which tells less about the changing population patters beyond these borders). The slowdown – also shown in the bar chart below the map – towards a stabilised population is accompanied by a decreasing net migration trend. This is the change that is projected for Greater London in that time period in total:
What political implications can be drawn from the demographic trends? ONS Population Trends regularly cause a stir and result in a heated debate about migration issues. Some see the prospect of a growing population in the already densely populated capital city as an evidence for a country that is literally “full”. Much less publicly discussed is the demographic trend of an ageing population and its implications, and much less is also discussed the issue of the UK’s population distribution. The developments that are shown here for London (and can be extended to the South-East) are not without alternatives, but they are a result of the dominating position that has in the urban system of the United Kingdom which remains considerably unbalanced and shows clear characteristics of a Primate City status (see also the works related to Zipf’s law that describes the Rank-Size distribution of city sizes). The economic, political and cultural supremacy results in the gravitational pull that the South-East has on people – London is seen as the place “where things happen”. It needs a change of this attitude to create a more balanced urban system at least in England (while devolution already started to help the rest of the UK to equalise some of this imbalance). A change in attitude needs to be accompanied by direct action of politics. Key institutions could be moved out of London towards other major cities (and not only back offices), and incentives could help to relocate some of the industries, including media and creative industries. Countries such as Germany and the United States show that the capital does not need to be the place where everything accumulates.
Changes will need time to develop, but would eventually lead towards a more sustainable economic structure in the country where London is not net only place that people feel the need to move to when looking for perspectives. Push-and-pull factors as described by Lee are currently a phenomenon that can be applied to the internal migration trends within the UK where London itself is intensifying its key position and boosting population movements southwards. More perspectives in the North may not only help the cities in the North, but also London itself by taking pressure from its overburdened infrastructure and housing market. It will help London to retain its international importance without being weakened by a failure to cope with the role of being Britain’s economic motor. There are 15-20 million people in the southeast, but that does also mean that the majority still lives in other places. But daring thoughts are still not very popular and we may need much more public debate about the benefits of a more balanced urban system. That could lead to a brighter future for a a prospering London and a fairer Britain.