More is Less

Just before Christmas, Labour issued a draft of its new statement of planning policy on what it laughably terms ‘sustainable economic development’. It turns out to be no less than a manifesto for sacrificing our quality of life on the altar of globalisation.

Buried within it is a proposal that henceforth housebuilding should be considered as a form of economic development. So Labour’s demonisation of the environment continues. Those who ask awkward questions about population growth – and how to look after a population already two or three times its optimum – are now to be branded as the enemies of prosperity itself.

Of course, in many ways we get the government – and the planning policies – we deserve. Housing has morphed subtly over the past 30 years from a means of shelter – a matter of social need – into a means of investment – a matter of economic greed. The complaint today is not that people are homeless but that they cannot get onto the property ladder. And the answer to the complaint is not to abuse the baby boomer generation for pulling up the ladder behind them (which they’ve done in so many ways, student grants being the prime example). Nor is it to convert ever more fields and woods into bricks and mortar. It’s to tackle the issues of vacant and second homes into which money has been poured on the basis that there’s nothing as safe as houses. It’s also to question why immigration continues unchecked, since immigrants don’t bring their homes with them.

Cynics – and they’re often right these days – will see Labour’s plan as being to stay in power for ever on the votes of grateful immigrants. And besides, just where would a champagne socialist be without the illegal nanny? But if we take Labour’s best shot at face value then we need to scrutinise the shrill claim that more people, more growth, more of everything, good and bad, is the outcome that everyone with a brain must welcome.

Standard of living and quality of life are not necessarily compatible. We should always be wary of equating well-being with prosperity as measured by the economists. That’s because what they measure as the national wealth – Gross Domestic Product – is simply the sum of goods and services produced on the national territory for sale to others. It measures ‘exchange value’ – economic busyness – not ‘use value’. So if we all grew our own vegetables instead of buying them in the shops, GDP would fall.

Some ‘goods’ are actually ‘bads’. A crime wave is excellent news for the economy. More insurance policies are sold, and premiums go up. More locks and burglar alarms are bought, and more security guards employed. It all counts towards GDP. And so does war, an opportunity to use up all that stockpiled military equipment and order anew. Treating avoidable diseases and injuries, cleaning up pollution, and the whole nonsense of planned obsolescence are all ‘wealth-creating’ activities. None of this should come as a surprise. James Robertson, a man whose career spanned the heights of public and private sectors, exposed it all in a book called The Sane Alternative back in 1983. But we just love to go on being conned.

The deepest trap into which we fall is to believe that a growing economy must be good for us, and not just for the super-rich (the 400 people whose earnings now top £10 million per year). So let’s cram in 30 million more workers because the national wealth will double. It might. But the wealth per head will not. Every new worker brings extra demands on public services and infrastructure. Traffic congestion. Water shortages. Astronomical house prices. Longer waiting lists for everything. And looming over all, the elephant in the room, the question of where all the food and fuel will come from when the oil runs dry.

The Economic & Social Research Council has published Britain in 2008, a ‘state of the nation’ report filled with fascinating facts and figures. It tells us that the UK is the world’s 6th largest economy, measured by total GDP. But in terms of GDP per head it comes a lowly 13th. The United States and Canada are ahead of us, but they’re the only large countries in the top 12. The little Gulf state of Qatar comes in 9th place and all the others are small European countries. In reverse order: Finland, Austria, Denmark, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Iceland, oil-rich Norway, Ireland and, top of the league, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The Grand Duchy, with a population the size of Cornwall, has a GDP per head figure that is 2.3 times that of the UK. The combined populations of Luxembourg, Iceland and Norway come to much less than that of Wessex, which is also more populous than either Finland, Denmark, Switzerland or Ireland. Austria and Sweden have slightly larger populations but are in much the same league. Who ever said that big is beautiful?

And who ever said that money can buy happiness? There is generally a positive relationship between income and reported satisfaction with life. But the level of satisfaction is lower in the UK than in Sweden, Belgium and Finland, which have similar levels of income. The highest levels of reported satisfaction are in Denmark, then Ireland and Austria. The average level of satisfaction in the UK is lower today than it was 20 years ago, in spite of higher incomes.

Now, let us consider a third variable: population density. The UK is the 51st most densely populated country on the planet. It’s more densely populated even than China, which comes in at 74th. But where are those countries we have seen earlier as models of prosperity and/or well-being? The Netherlands is 25th, Belgium is 31st (ahead of India at 33rd) but the rest are trailing: Luxembourg (62nd), Switzerland (64th), Denmark (82nd), Austria (104th), then Ireland (141st), Sweden (194th), Finland (200th), Norway (213th) and Iceland (232nd). So, of Europe’s top 5 countries by GDP per head, all have lower population densities than the UK, the two Scandinavian ones by a considerable margin. The three happiest countries too tell the same story.

Wessex has, or rather had, as growth has been rapid since the last census in 2001, a population density of 260 persons per square kilometre. If Wessex were an independent state, it would rank 48th in the world. That is to say, its place is not held down, as the UK’s is, by the empty mountains of Scotland, Wales and the north of England but only by pockets of wilderness in a rising tide of urbanisation. Since the planet’s overall density is 45 persons per square kilometre, Wessex is nearly six times as dense as the global average.

Rising population means rising stress. It means less countryside, and more fraught access to it as Green Belt disappears and roads fill up. It means a shallower experience when we get there, as beauty spots become crowded and tranquillity shrinks and fragments. It means more pressure on the use of land, so higher land and house prices. Already we have the smallest new homes in Europe (and that is not because a wicked planning system is preventing builders from doing good but because a tiny band of far-seeing folk are doing their best to prevent the destruction of our future food supply). And stress is not the only risk that increases. If Labour’s plans are forced through despite the pleas of the sane, many thousands of homes will be built on floodplains, there being no more suitable land left.

The alternative is obvious. Happiness is fewer of us, organised in smaller political units where the environment is what we live in, not what we sell from under our feet to whoever waves the biggest chequebook.