Overview and Introduction: Chapter 9

Home… the settlements of society

Exercise

Try to imagine how the country might look if this book were to be rewritten in 50 years' time. Today's university leavers will be of pensionable age, but which will have good pensions? Where will they have moved to, and how will they be accommodated? Many of their parents will still be alive if life expectancy continues to rise as it has done for the last 50 years, but who will be caring for them? There will be fewer people of working age and fewer children again, unless today's school leavers behave differently from their parents or unless more young people come into the country than leave it.

In 2062 of what will the housing stock be made up? How many of the Victorian terraces will still be standing? What will be the state of the homes built around the middle of the last century, now all at least a century old? And will some families still have the state or its agents as their landlords? Which settlements will have declined and which will have grown? Will the old still move to the coast? Will the young still cluster in university towns and move in large numbers to the Capital? Will fewer or more people be ill? Of what will the population now be dying? What could the human geography of the United Kingdom look like in, say, 2055, if there is a 'united' Kingdom then?

Speculation over the future is a fraught but interesting exercise. One way to conduct it is to divide your speculation up by how uncertain you are about different issues. Start with issues you think are more certain, move on to things which are more uncertain, and end with pure speculation. To start you off here is one possible way in which you could begin with a set of issues to consider:

  1. More certain: We largely rely now on infrastructure built over 50 years ago - roads, rail, sewers and houses. Thus we largely live in the same places we lived in half a century ago. What is the state of this infrastructure? What kinds of things could you expect to see built in the coming years? For example, airports often take decades to plan and build. High speed rail tracks can take even longer. What might the impact of such changes be?
  2. Less certain: Some aspects of human life change slowly and in one direction for long periods of time, for example the fall in fertility, the rise in life expectancy, people being educated for longer and longer periods, national wealth rising, inequalities not tending to diminish. If those aspects of life in Britain which have changed slowly and in a steady direction for most of the last 50 years were to continue on their way, what would the future hold for us? What if you include trends which appear to be cyclical such as economic recessions?
  3. Pure speculation: Most forecasts of the future appear to work until something unusual occurs and there are many unusual things which can occur. The population of Britain was last altered significantly by a major infectious disease pandemic and a war over 90 years ago. How would we cope with such an event in the future? We were last on the receiving end of a major war over 50 years ago. War has far from ended around the globe, so what if we were at war at home again? Both over 100 and 60 years ago radical governments took power in Britain and instigated many changes to improve people's lives. Could that happen again? And what could happen that you have not thought of?

Having thought up a set of issues and characterised them into the three groups above, set to work on outlining possible scenarios for the future, and divide the work up. Draw possible maps of the future. These are far easier to draw than are maps of the present because you can simply make the data up. All you need is for your map to be plausible. For instance, draw a map of the results of a fictional general election in 2055. What kinds of political party might there be and what voting system? Will some children now be allowed to vote or will voting rights be more restricted than today? You may think it unlikely that there will be such elections in 50 years time, after all, elections in which almost all adults are allowed to vote are less than a century old in this country and there have been only just over two dozen of them, hardly a long time series. But even if you think like this, try to draw a map of how the alternative to elections might operate.

The one thing you can be (quite) sure of is that there will still be a distinct geographical pattern to the lives of people on and around this island. There always has been. Perhaps the hardest future to imagine is one in which every place becomes more similar to every other as the people living there are concerned. You could move around the country but you could not tell where you were from, what the people there were doing, how they were living and what they had. It is a difficult future to imagine unless, that is, you were a child of the late 1970s and early 1980s in this country. Then, if you had believed the rhetoric of government, there would be equality in the future. The poor would grow rich on the trickle down of monies from the affluent, state housing would all be sold to its inhabitants and the future would be a rosy, prosperous hard-working utopia for all, even for the inhabitants of 'those inner cities' for which they had 'task forces'. In secret government minsters planned for the "managed decline" of parts of the north such as Liverpool. This was only revealed thirty years later in January 2012 when cabinet minutes for 1981 were declassified.

If you believed some of the opposition to the government of those days, then the future was to be equally equitable if a little more bleak. The opposition said that the government was trying to manage the decline of much of the country outside of South East England (and that now appears to have been the case). Much more seriously, some parts of the opposition warned that with America's aid we would manage to engage in a nuclear war. Most of us would be killed and the survivors would 'envy the dead'. If this occurred then there would be little variation in the remaining conditions of living across the Kingdom (which would almost certainly no longer be a kingdom), although you'd be well situated if you could get to the Caledonian canal, which would have become the major new trade route for a rapidly emerging new stone age.

Safe to say neither of those predictions came true. The Labour opposition came to power and it said that we would live with greater equality in the future, as government would 'bring Britain back together again', but few believed they would. If you believed other voices, including the barely concealed voice of parts of the government, then what we had most to fear was a bomb or a virus, no longer from the Russians, but still hitting our major cities. In fact what we had most to fear turned out to be what was being most celebrated. The supposed success story of the financial wizardry of London bankers turned out to be a bomb of a different kind, one which blew up the national finances in 2008.

As I write this we are told that there will soon be a "Big Society" and people will come together again with a little encouragement from government to help each other. There is always speculation that somehow we are on a particular road to some kind of a utopia and in some ways it doesn't change a great deal - the authors and actors are altered but the scenes portrayed remain much the same. Unless I am extremely lucky, I won't be around to see what the world looks like in 2062. For my generation and older folk, your predictions cannot be proved right or wrong.

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