Here’s a question you probably think you know the answer to: Which country has the higher population density – England, India or Japan? The obvious one for me would be Japan, which is notoriously overcrowded. But it’s not – and it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out which one it is.
The reason, I suspect, that most people don’t know this is that the UK’s figures are seldom split out by country. While the UK has a high but reasonable population density of 255 people per square km, it’s very unevenly spread out. England accounts for 85% of the population, but only 53% of the land, giving it a density of near 400. Japan is a mere 337, with India rising rapidly at 368. South Africa has a lowly 40, while the US (thanks to Alaska) is even lower at 32.
This has a number of repercussions, some good, some bad, some ugly.
Firstly, it ensures that there’s a large market for goods. South Africa has perhaps 10 million people (at a stretch) with the means to purchase non-essentials, spread over about 10 cities, leading to a limited market for items catering to the middle-class. In England, the majority of the population would be middle-class or above (at least by South African standards), and the impact is obvious with as little as a walk through a supermarket. The variety of yoghurts, cereals, cheeses, and convenience foods is significantly wider than back home. Economies of scale allow the access to market cost to be recouped much easier, and combined with proximity to the plethora of European suppliers, it means that what would be niche products back home can afford to be offered as everyday fare.
Secondly, it means you’re never far from people, usually in large quantities. There’s very little that could possibly be thought of as ‘wilderness’. In South Africa, we joke about the country towns being so small that if you blink when driving through, you miss them. Here, it’s the gap between the towns that’s missable. A typical journey of four miles around here would take you from town A, through B and C, into town D. In parts of SA, that might take you from one farm to the next.
That leads to two immediate results – one of which is good: Lots of towns and lots of people means lots of things to do. If I restrict myself to an hour’s drive, I could find enough to keep me busy for all the Saturdays in a year. The options are near limitless. The other is bad: Most of those attractions tend to be oversubscribed. Particularly in summer, and thoroughly so whenever the weather is good. We’ll be heading to Legoland in just over a week, and I’m not looking forward to the throngs.
Then, something I’ve found particularly noteworthy is that a high population density spread over a large area results in a more even spread of industry and business. In SA, if you’re looking for work, you’ll find that at least 80% of the opportunities are in either Joburg or Cape Town. Particularly those with a national focus. Unless you’re in motor manufacturing, or catering to a specific community, you’re likely to stick to those two. England, however, has a much more even spread. Naturally, there’s a glut in London (particularly in the Financial sector), but there’s a wide choice of alternative cities to choose from.
Something else I’ve noticed (which may well be affected by the location of my office, and the nature of the business in the current legal milieu) is that there’s a willingness to commute longer distances. Out of my team of five, one is in Glasgow, one’s from Norfolk, and the other from Manchester. They commute in on a weekly basis, work four ten-hour days a week, and take Friday off. And yet, a survey released a week or so ago discovered that 70% of the UK have a commute shorter than 30 minutes each way. Using what I’ve written above, I find that both hard and easy to believe. On the one hand, workplaces are scattered liberally around the country, and outside of the major city centres, you’d struggle to commute for more than 30 minutes. However, there’s a measurable slice of the population that lives in small country towns further away – I have numerous colleagues in the Cotswolds, for example. Even in Birmingham (the second largest city in the UK), you can get from the outskirts to the centre in 30 minutes by train (or even by car if you’re lucky). But that 30% is probably largely in London, filled in by the long-distance contractors. My initial gut feel was that the 70% was too high, but I’m not so sure any more.
There’s another side of the high population story I’d like to write on at some point, but it’s more of a cause than an effect, and it’s not very politically correct, so I’ll probably get round to doing that at Christmastime, when nobody will be reading anything I write here.