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Dense is a good word, actually

By Harvey Nriapia, Chief Economics Correspondent


What is the densest pocket of Britain? Commuters the country over will insist that it’s their morning train to work. On particularly hot days, the tabloids would have you believe it was most certainly the beaches of Blackpool or Bournemouth. A cynic might say that the densest pocket of Britain is at Westminster. But recent research reveals that the densest pocket of Britain is, in fact, in Bow.


It’s not immediately obvious why. There are a handful of post-war tower blocks, some compact terraces and streets flanked with rows of squat flats. And yet it’s the site of the most densely populated square kilometre in Britain, housing a little over 25,000 people. For comparison, the equivalent square kilometre in Paris is home to over double. In New York, it’s more than 66,000.


The densest part of Britain, near Bow Common, London


London has always had a problem with density. In 1665, King Charles II thought London was full. He hated the jetties that overhung into the streets so much that he threatened imprisonment to anyone that continued to build them. Luckily for him, it would all be up in flames a year later, when a great fire raged over the city and rendered 85% of its population homeless. The “thick” housing made London “full of matter for burning”, wrote Samuel Pepys in his diary in September, 1666. And everyone agreed.


King Charles III is only a little bit keener. London is home to twenty-five times more people now—and he wants to keep it that way. Since his accession, he has begun to curtail his more incendiary remarks on London’s architecture. But he has made it clear in the past that he yearns for a “midrise London… [with] human-scaled streets”—a conceptualisation of the capital befitting of a Sylvanian family. “Mid-rise looks like London,” he wrote in 2014. “Not Singapore or Dubai.”


And we are poorer for it. The failure to build more densely in urban centres across Britain is stymying growth. Cities are forced to sprawl into their outskirts until they hit the greenbelt, which policymakers have devoted years to consecrating as untouchable. Young upstarts are pushed out of urban centres due to a lack of housing stock, and the ones that manage to stay spend up to 70% of their income on rocketing rents. Homeowners in all parts of the country frequently object to new housing developments, and MPs of all colours frequently help them to do so. But the chronic housing shortage plaguing Britain is as much a fault of building too little as building too sparse.


Last year, Minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, said that Britain “must pursue gentle density”, in an attempt to bridge the gap between NIMBY and YIMBY factional groups. Criticism abounded. YIMBYs argued that his statement was too tame. NIMBYs lamented the local character of their communities. And everyone else had less property to live, raise families and start businesses in.


Density doesn’t have to be imposing, but it might need to be imposed—or at least, as some policymakers are figuring out, heavily incentivised. Some suggest that replacing stamp duty with a density-based tax might be the answer. Others have developers mock-up pretty designs of densified buildings to present at the community board meetings of finicky residents. Maybe the country needs another great fire, so that it might be rebuilt again. But it’s clear that dense policy is getting smarter. Now Britain must follow suit.


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