Bye Bye Beauty

Last week saw the first results published from the 2011 census of England (& Cornwall) & Wales. (We’ll call that ‘ECW’ for short.) The results are interesting both for what they say and what they don’t. There’s a gap of maybe a few million who aren’t included and therefore have to be estimated. It’s an offence not to complete a census form but there have only been 252 prosecutions. Which is a symptom of a government that’s losing control and doesn’t care, or is too scared to enforce the law, or else recognises that the law may not be on its side, given the outsourcing arrangements made for the 2011 census. The statisticians shrug and tell us that a 94% response rate is good enough for most purposes, and was the same last time. It’s said that the only folk who can tell for sure now what the population is are the major supermarkets, who know from grocery sales how many folk are being fed.

London politicians’ reactions to the news that ECW’s population rose by 7.1% in a decade (twice the rate for the previous decade) range from glee to indifference to resignation. The destruction of our environment is either welcome, irrelevant or inevitable. Wessex, of course, has suffered more than some other regions, as London’s overspill continues to spew over our central and eastern shires. Our population has now passed the 8 million mark, to stand at 8,028,500. That comes to 262% of the population of Wales and 98% that of London. So where’s OUR assembly then?

The breakdown by shire, using the best available approximation to pre-1974 administrative boundaries, is as follows:

Berkshire – 842,700
Devon – 1,133,800
Dorset – 512,900
Gloucestershire (including Bristol) – 1,288,000
Hampshire (including Wight) – 2,129,300
Oxfordshire – 532,900
Somerset – 908,700
Wiltshire – 680,200

West Somerset, much of it protected by the Exmoor National Park, is the only area of Wessex to have lost population (down 1% since 2001), though Hinkley Point C’s construction may well reverse that loss. Some urban areas have grown by 10% or more (the most being 16%, in Swindon), as have rural districts as widely spaced as Mid Devon, North Dorset and West Oxfordshire. While eastern England, from Lincolnshire to Kent, has borne the brunt of the growth, the consequences for our own countryside (and other open land) are clear.

And continuing. Areas with the largest proportions of 0-4 year-olds are concentrated along the motorway corridors, with many coastal areas seemingly abandoned to the growing numbers of retired. We are seeing a polarisation within Wessex based on accessibility to the major inland routes, especially to London, though this is not necessarily the same thing as distance from London. Planned investment in rail electrification could further transform our geography in the decades ahead.

London politicians are keen to claim that our treasured local environments are safe. Because planning will protect them. It’s all lies, because planning does no such thing. Planning just prioritises which treasured environments are to be destroyed now and which will be permitted to survive for another decade or two before the clamour for homes overwhelms them. The roads and the houses go on advancing towards the crack of doom. To escape, we need to confront the problem of growth itself. And no London politician will dare do that.