Capital gains: we'll be nine million by 2020

Official figures just published show London is growing by a new borough every three years. Jonathan Prynn reports
Within the next 10 years London’s population will pass its 1939 all-time high of 8.6 million — and march remorselessly on towards the nine million mark, making us the first city in Europe to hit this figure and putting us ahead of New York.

Nine Elms site
This Nine Elms site is one of seven key regeneration areas identified by the Mayor's office which could help absorb London's growing population

Official figures just published show that the capital’s population is exploding at a faster rate than anyone had predicted. Between the census counts of 2001 and last year, London soaked up an additional one million souls — the equivalent of the entire population of England’s second city, Birmingham — with 8.174 million people now living here.

'In electricity terms, building the Shard is like taking a town the size of Chelmsford and putting it in one building'

In some boroughs the growth has been truly spectacular. The population of Tower Hamlets shot up by 26.4 per cent, more than twice the rate of the whole of London, with Newham (23 per cent) and Hackney (19 per cent) not far behind.

Battersea Power Station
Battersea Power Station: 3,400 homes, 2.48m sq ft commercial, conference space and six-acre Riverside Park
The reason for this population boom? Immigration, combined with a marked slowdown in the number of people leaving the capital. People coming to live in London also tend to be younger than the average age profile, leading to an increase in the birth rate.

With this number of people needing to be housed, heated and moved around, London planners have been forced to think radically, about how the capital’s already struggling networks will cope with more people — equivalent to adding a new borough every three years.

Last year Mayor Boris Johnson published the latest London Plan in which he spelled out the need to spend an extra £75 billion on London infrastructure over the next 15 to 20 years.

More homes

The affordable housing crisis is well known and will only get worse. According to analysis by agents Savills the supply of new housing in London is at least a third below the Mayor’s minimum target, a shortfall of about 10,000 homes a year.

But according to his chief of staff and deputy for planning, Sir Edward Lister, as well as the obvious needs, such as housing, there will also have to be huge upgrading of infrastructure systems, such as those that distribute and supply electricity.

Marco Polo House
Marco Polo House: 456 homes, 13,500 sq ft commercial space by 2015 in a scheme worth £500m
He says: “This is starting to be a major problem, we don’t have the transformers or the power stations that we are going to need. In electricity terms, building the Shard is like taking a town the size of Chelmsford and putting it in one building.”

More energy

Most of Britain’s gas and coal-fired power generation is in the Midlands and the north of Britain, far from the capital, which uses 20 per cent of the country’s energy. The more distant a generation plant the more “juice” that gets lost en route. Expect to see more power stations dotted around the South East.

The huge London Array wind farm in the Thames Estuary will eventually be capable of supplying up to a quarter of the homes in London, though not on the sort of limpid days the capital has been enjoying recently.

One Nine Elms
One Nine Elms: Green Property Group/CIT's plan for 456 new homes and a hotel is due for completion in 2016 to 2018
London’s demand for energy is growing at five per cent a year compared with two to three per cent elsewhere in the country. National Grid is investing almost £800 million in a 20-mile electricity superhighway below London that will be complete by 2018 and will help to make sure the lights stay on.

More water

Per head of population, London has less rainfall than Istanbul or Dallas. Yet Londoners are remarkably profligate with the wet stuff, consuming 160 litres per person per day on average.

As well as reducing pipe leakage and exhorting Londoners to take shorter showers, Thames Water bosses are engaged in planning how to keep a London of nine million people from running dry. This includes a huge reservoir near Oxfordshire that would be used to release water into the Thames during long, hot summers, and a £250 million plan to restore the Cotswold Canals as a link to transfer water between the Severn, which rises in the perenially wet hills of Mid Wales, and the Thames.

London’s 150-year-old sewer system — once the envy of the world — is under huge pressure. It was designed to cope with a population of up to four million but now has to handle the waste of twice that. Thames Water is spending more than £4 billion to build its Tideway Tunnel, otherwise known as the “super sewer” as a vast overflow pipe when the existing Victorian system gets overwhelmed by heavy rainfall and has to release into the river. Thames is also spending £675 million on upgrading its five existing London sewage works at Mogden, Beckton, Crossness, Riverside and Longreach.

Nine Elms Parkside
Nine Elms Parkside: Royal Mail Group has approval for 456 and a new primary school

More schools

Education and healthcare will feel greater strain as the population continues to gallop at a time of intense pressure on public spending.

According to London Councils — the body that represents the capital’s town halls — there will be a shortfall of 70,000 school places by 2015. Councils are already drawing up emergency plans to teach children in disused shops, warehouses, magistrates’ courts and vacant office blocks.

Much less travel

Perhaps the biggest worry is how London’s already creaking transport networks will cope. The capital is already Europe’s most congested city and five of the UK’s worst congestion hotspots are in the capital. A population of nine million will mean around 27 million trips a day being made in London.

Even if all the funded infrastructure improvements — a list headed by Crossrail — are completed, delays will increase by 14 per cent, according to a report for the London Assembly.

St James' riverside scheme
Riverlight: St James' £500m riverside scheme, now under construction, includes 806 homes, a new "pocket park" and new commercial space
Such strains on the commuting networks will force a radical rethink of the way we work, with technology making it far easier for many employees to be based at home.

More of us will live in the outer suburbs, according to Yolande Barnes, director of residential research at Savills. She believes that nothing less than a radical rethink of the London suburbs — urbanising the leafy Metro-land — will solve the crisis.

She says: “The challenge is building a Birmingham in the outer suburbs, which are surprisingly low-density for such a big city. They could accommodate a lot of people if they took on more of the characteristics of inner London.”

However, planners are cautiously optimistic that, with sufficient investment and planning, “London Can Take It” and the capital will be able to function at nine million. A growing population, is at least, an indicator of success and rude health.

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