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To the Future Foundation/DEFRA

Rural Futures Project: Scenario building for twenty year and fifty year futures

Submission by the OPTIMUM POPULATION TRUST, 6 September 2004


We thank the Future Foundation for allowing us to respond to this document and hope that this submission will be helpful in formulating future scenarios. We note that recent reports produced by the government call for environmental issues to be covered in future policy objectives.

    For example, the Study into the environmental impacts of increasing the supply of housing in the UK (DEFRA, April 2004) states that "there are associated social and environmental impacts of increasing the supply of housing... These are wide ranging in nature and include effects on water, energy demand, landscape and biodiversity issues to name but a few. It is important that the social and environmental issues are fully explored and given sufficient weight amongst other government policy objectives."

However, we also note that many agencies and departments accept passively the destruction of countryside that is in part due to continuous population growth :

    For example, The state of the countryside 2004 (Countryside Agency, June 2004) admits that "between 1981 and 2002 the rural population [of England] grew by 1.7 million", and that "between 1990 and 1998 about a quarter (23%) of these [English] landscapes showed changes in the key elements that shaped their character... In 40% of landscapes the patterns of change were consistent with their current descriptions."

We do not believe that rural Britain will survive in any meaningful way if government accepts continuous population growth on a predict-and-provide basis and neglects the need for an environmentally sustainable population policy. The population of the UK, at an estimated 59.5 million in 2004, has grown 20 per cent since 1950 and is increasing by about 200,000 a year. At a continuous growth rate of 0.4% a year, it would reach 71 million by 2050. It is currently projected to increase by 5 million to 64.8 million by 2031 (Government Actuary's Department). The logical consequence of continuous national population growth and spill-over migration into the countryside is that more rural settlements will become urban settlements, and that more settlements will merge into each other, causing further shrinkage of the countryside.


A: The definition of ‘Sustainable Development’

  • 1. We suggest that the next Rural Futures Project scenarios for 2025 and 2050 incorporate scientific information about the resource demands and impacts of population numbers on the environment of the UK, and that this should take the form of a "Productive Rural" Scenario (as suggested in Rural Futures Project: Appendix 6) which takes into account our future need for food and energy crops and the need to absorb mounting environmental impacts, including all forms of waste and pollution, against a background of continuing and unstable climate change. We suggest that the 2050 scenario considers key developments that may occur between 2050 and 2100, such as climate change.

  • 2. We suggest that overall UK population increase, stability, or decrease should be incorporated as a key policy driver in such a scenario, and that such a scenario should consider the beneficial results of stabilisation and gradual reduction of the population of the UK rather than passively accepting continuous population growth. Our own broad policy proposal is an annual reduction of about 0.25% a year in UK population, to reach 52 million by 2050, a policy we believe to be necessary for environmental, energy and related economic reasons. This will be necessary to prevent further shrinkage of our ecologically productive land and to bring land that has been built on back into ecologically productive use.

  • 3. We suggest that the use of the term 'developed' needs to be more specific and the nature of 'development' classified according to overall environmental impact. Development which means (1) regeneration of existing buildings with no resulting increase in population numbers or density, and with no consequent increase in national resource use or environmental impacts, for example, is very different from (2) additional built development which is caused by or results in population growth with consequently higher resource use and environmental impacts.

  • 4. We suggest that there should be no presumption that particular types or areas of countryside need to be developed, and that this should be made a clear and acceptable choice. Only 40% of English landscapes remained unaltered by development between 1990 and 1998. It is not clear how much of this development was change of agricultural use and how much was urbanisation [Countryside Agency, above].

  • 5. While we recognise that many other factors cause environmental impacts, we suggest that there should not be an assumption that there is no choice but to accept continuous population growth.
      Example 5.1: the assumption (Rural Futures Project 3.2: 'The modelling process') that 'we are 87% certain that the Deep Rural typology will account for less land in 2024 than it did in 2001' would be different if the underlying population assumptions did not exclude the possibility of national population stabilisation and reduction.
    Many other conclusions could be changed in this way, enabling more optimistic scenarios:
      Example 5.2, the assumption (Rural Futures Project 5.4 'Life in the dynamic commuter zones') that 'continued development will put significant pressure on key natural resources - particularly water. Metered water will be compulsory and water prices will rise significantly'. If population were to decrease, development pressures on key resources could also decrease.

  • 6. Rural population growth, we believe, cannot be considered in isolation from national population growth. For example, a projected increase of 5 million people by 2031 could create a need for more than 2 million new homes (excluding current unfilled housing need) and bring 2.5 million more vehicles on to UK roads. The amount of infrastructure also needed to support population growth on this scale, and the impacts associated with it, would put such pressures on our remaining semi-rural and rural areas that they would shrink still further.

    We suggest therefore that population drivers should be added under heading 5.1: 'Summary of drivers and assumptions for this scenario' [Rural Futures Project, page 16].

    1. 6.1 A national population change driver National (UK) population increase or decrease needs to be seen not simply as a driver of rural change, but as an active policy option. We suggest that a new driver is added to the 'Policy' section of 5.1 (Summary of drivers and assumptions): Population policy. Under 'Possible degrees' in that section, we suggest 'Low growth', 'Stable' or 'Gradual reduction (-0.25%)'.

      6.2 Rural population change drivers We suggest that the rural population growth drivers in the 'Other' section of Summary 5.1. under 'Possible degrees' should be changed from 'High, moderate or low' to ' Low growth, stable or gradual reduction', if it can be established that high population growth is no longer a policy option.
  • 7. Note: the detailed environmental effects of intra-UK population distribution are complex and are not dealt with in detail in the supporting appendices. However, the problems of population distribution or density within the UK cannot be effectively addressed without an acknowledgment that solutions would be consistently undermined by continuous growth of overall numbers and appropriate government action to prevent this taking place.


    A. OPT's submission to the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee - Sustainable development: illusion or reality, is enclosed (May 2004).

    B. The following documents, adapted from briefing papers, are enclosed as supporting documents. More information is available from the Optimum Population website.

    Appendix 1: Visions of Britain
    Appendix 2: UK population figures
    Appendix 3: The UK's population problem
    Appendix 4: Too many people: UK
    Appendix 5: Countryside, housing and development
    Appendix 6: Energy
    Appendix 7: Climate
    Appendix 8: Transport
    Appendix 9: Population projections and policy
    Appendix 10: Europe
    Appendix 11: Who we are

    For further information please contact:
    Rosamund McDougall
    Co-chair, Optimum Population Trust

    This website launched June 2002