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Blind Man’s ‘Bluff’ - An alternative vision for Britain’s Imperilled Future (Part 2)

Posted on February 11, 2013 by Professor Benfield There have been 0 comments

Along with the rest of the world, over the next 40 years the UK faces rapid population growth, pressure on land, water, energy and other resources, and an administrative legacy that even some Ministers of the Crown see as ‘not fit for purpose’.

Against this background arguments surrounding the HS2 routes are diversionary and destined to lead us all up a blind alley. But it is not too late to avoid this. With these routes now determined, politicians and planners should revisit projections and engage citizens in the quest to build a truly inspiring Britain.


Housing & Feeding Britain in 2050 – Communication, Land, Planning, Design & Delivery,

Creative Organisation

Back then, as Bahrami[i] noted, cultural change was enabling ‘creative’ business transformation in which “computer supported co-operative working” was a trend not to be resisted. He forecast that extreme transformations would create “virtual organisations”, with products being made to order, near-instantaneous delivery, and the most effective use of resources throughout the business system. This involved not only the ultimate seller, but everybody along the entire supply chain.  In this context this means all of us.

Envisaging “more and more work being done by teams addressing projects that have a beginning and an end”, both he and Microsoft's Bill Gates forecast that by the 21st Century, “groupware” would “ ... allow everyone in a company to collaborate, allowing businesses to track everything done on a new product design and everything done with customers”

Yesterday’s Dream - Today’s Reality

Anyone engaged in property development and confronted by BIM (Building Information Management) as an interactive project tool, anyone with knowledge of Dell’s ‘made to order’ computer sales, and anyone who has ever purchased anything from Amazon cannot fail to recognise the on-going realisation of such creativity driven change.

If TV programmes like Startrek can envision miniature communication devices, then, adapting Walt Disney’s spur “If we can dream it, we can do it.” should be our mantra.

Changing British Administration

Rooted in digital technology, such changes open the way, for example, for more of the ownership and control of public-service institutions to pass out of the hands of bureaucrats and government professionals into those of communities and individuals.

It is, for example, increasingly possible for Citizen Groups, neighbourhoods, and volunteer organisations to be authorised and, where necessary, centrally funded, to carry out many of the local activities of government.  If that were to happen, whole layers of administration would become unnecessary.

Decentralising Britain

Given such changes, it is entirely possible to contemplate the future of Britain as a fully decentralised society and country. This becomes all the more possible when one embraces the notion of a truly high speed national ‘Vac-Train’[ii] network, as envisioned in my critique of HS2.

In its pronouncements on this, our present Government looks wistfully at the French TGV[iii] rail system. However, they ignore the fact that this is already more than 30 years old, so that HS2 may be 60 years out of date by the time it is carries its first passengers. In claiming that this will enable the regions to share in London’s trade and commercial benefits they also conveniently overlook the ways in which France has become even more centralised on Paris. As, apparently, the Prime Ministers mother has remarked “David doesn’t listen”[iv] One has to ask “Exactly whose interest are they looking after?”

Moreover, they fail to recognise the spatial, cultural and domestic differences between Britain and France, of a people accustomed to fairly frequent relocations (the UK) compared with one where they have seemingly greater allegiance to their roots (France).

The Population Time-Bomb

Source: Wikipedia

This brings me to consideration of change in British society and the ‘Futurological’ importance of this over the very long term.

Source: BBC

In 1940 global population was just under 3 billion, with some 40 million people in the UK.

By the mid 1970’s this had reached 3.7 billion and 55+ million respectively.

Now these figures have gone up to 7 billion and 63+ million.

By 2050 – less than 40 years away – some forecasters predict that there will be perhaps 10.5 billion people in the world, with a midrange 70 million or more of them living in the UK.

That’s around a 50% increase globally, and 10% nationally.

Looked at another way, over only a very short 70 year timespan – a single lifetime - the population of the world will have more than trebled, with that of the UK well on its way to doubling.

Although the question of energy security may have been temporarily ‘parked’ due to the advent of gas ‘fracking‘[v] - which has seen US prices tumble by 2/3rds over the last year or so - pressures on water and food security could see economic immigration to the UK pushing its population even higher.

Increased Need for Homes

The UK already has a housing shortage of around 1.5 million homes. This is rising at circa +/- 150,000 new dwellings per year.

So, taking into consideration population growth forecasts, on a straight line projection over the next 40 years we need to:-

a)    House another 10 million people – say 3 million families /dwellings

b)    Add a further 1.5 million homes for the already un / under housed, and …

c)    Replace possibly 15% to 20% of our aged / ageing stock (3 to 4 million homes)

That means we need an all-up ballpark figure of, say, between 7.5 to 8.5 million new homes over the next 40 years.

On a straight line basis that averages around +/- 200,000 p.a. This is somewhat lower than the 240,000 (government) to 280,000 (shelter) figures but, I suggest, validates these numbers when one considers the need for ‘catch up’.

Need for More Development Land

Land to replace homes that are demolished can, theoretically, be provided ‘in situ’, but that still leaves the need to find land for an additional 4.5 million homes – some 20% more than we have already. The Coalition Government has already indicated that more green-field land will have to be released, despite renewed objections that the country will be ‘concreted over’.

Similarly attendant on this is the need for land for employment, amenity, services, food supply, etc. These are issues that are confronting all countries the world over. China, for example, has integrated food production[vi] into urban development and already acts to ensure that housing & other property development must not cause loss of food production.


To invoke the old truism, if you think our roads, towns and cities are overcrowded now and if you think that resources are getting scarcer and more costly, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”!

While the future of industry, employment, movement of goods, and travel are coincident considerations, the extra factor is that of unavoidable population growth. While it is possible that this may begin to decline in the UK from around 2050, this will vary from country to country, Whatever the case, globally and in the UK the next 40 years will see more and more people competing for less and less resources.

There is another concern. It is predicted that, by the same date, 75% of the world’s population[vii] will be living in dense (many of them mega) cities.

In some places people are already starting to prepare for this by developing ‘Urban Farms’ [viii]

– literally growing food in beds and greenhouses on the rooftops and walls of all forms of buildings, including supermarkets.

Even new forms of ‘vertical farming’[ix] (see video) are being experimented with

In the UK an embryonic “AquaPonics”[x] organisation is perfecting its own combination of vegetable and fish farming in discrete combination units. An explorative city centre shop is already in place and the promoters recently won a Green Genius ("greenius"[xi]) award from the TSB and SBRI. They now have full commercial funding in prospect, with European Fisheries match funding in the offing.

With open acknowledgement that food prices will continue to rise, it seems that EU and some Central Governments are becoming concerned at the potential for food shortages to arise before very long.

[i] Bahrami, H. and Evans, S. 1995. Flexible re-cycling and high-technology entrepreneurship.

[ii] Vacuum Train -

[iii] The high-speed trains used in France are known as TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse = high speed train up to 320 km/h (200 mph)

[iv] Radio 4, Today programme, 1 February 2013

[v] fracing, fraccing, or fracking, is a technique used to release petroleum, natural gas (including shale gas, tight gas, and coal seam gas), or other substances for extraction.

[vi] Greener Cities -

[vii] Megacities, David Piling, Financial Times 4 Nov 11,

[viii] Urban Agriculture -

[ix] Economist Magazine video:

[x] TedX Warwick University

[xi] Technology Strategy Board -

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