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London: A Tale of Two Cities

Patrick Ward By Patrick Ward Published on November 13, 2015

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I love you London, but enough’s enough. We’ve had fun. Those late night walks along the wet pavement of South Bank, listening to the rolling river through the patter of rain on umbrella. We met lots of people together, people from all over the world, and let that mixture of cultures and languages and histories influence and shape both of us. You were always a bit shabby, but I loved your imperfections. And your parks and stuff. But lately, you’ve changed.

Just to be clear, I’m not actually in love with an anthropomorphised London, and I’m stopping that motif before I get as far as Cockfosters and it starts to sound smutty. But the heartbreak is sadly real. London’s become a jerk, and we all know it. It’s sold itself out to the world’s richest people, spies on us with more CCTV per capita than anywhere else in the world, and spends all its money on unnecessary, useless crap designed to draw attention away from the fact that nearly a third of the population lives in poverty.

The capital is becoming a theme park for the world’s elite. Roll up, roll up, ride the big wheel! Get a decaf in the Cat Cafe! Climb the Walkie-Talkie and look at the indoor foliage! Hey, you like high gardens, buddy? WE’VE GOT HIGH GARDENS FOR YOU, PAL! You want to see the clown? You want to hang out with Boris Johnson?

Case in point: There’s about to be a new bridge built in London with a garden on it. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Green space in the middle of town, on a bridge! But if you’ve ever seen the classic Simpsons episode Marge vs the Monorail, you’ll know how that’s going.

After the goodwill and even excitement about the bridge, the costs spiralled. Originally the funding would come exclusively from private backers, but now the state has to pay £60 million, as overall costs shot up to £175 million. Then they started really taking the piss, with a list of regulations including a ban on cycling and picnics, the monitoring of mobile phones, and the right for bridge security to search anyone suspected of breaking the rules. Oh, and only less than half of it will actually have anything planted on it, which might not amuse the people paying for the monthly corporate events that will close the bridge to everyone else. Congratulations London, you’ve just spent £60 million on a simulation of the city’s dystopic future.

This is an illustration of everything that is wrong with London. Huge piles of money exist, but it’s thrown towards vacuous nonsense that makes the city look good to investors, and only grudgingly allows the unwashed public anywhere near it. And there are plenty of things that Londoners desperately need that money for. Primarily, housing.

If you now tell someone that you’ve just got a mortgage on a house in London, you get the same reaction as if you told them you just bought your second super yacht. Research by KPMG back in March found that a first time buyer in London now needs to have a salary of a whopping £77,000 to get a mortgage. That’s nearly the combined salary of four newly qualified nurses. And the rental sector is little better. The average monthly rent in London is now £1,500 – that’s £18,000 a year, and prices are increasing by around 18 per cent annually. The median salary in outer London is £24,241, or £34,473 in the centre. Housing costs are rising five times faster than pay.

If you need any more evidence on how expensive it is to live in London these days, just ask former Tory foreign minister Mark Simmonds, who last year resigned his job (£89,435 salary plus £27,875 annual housing allowance) saying he could no longer afford to work for such a pittance in London.

The housing crisis is acknowledged across the political spectrum, but the prevailing attitude in recent years has been to encourage builders to make at least part of their housing affordable. One of the problems with that though is that politicians set the level of affordability. A new government scheme to build much needed affordable housing suggests that 80 per cent of market costs is an appropriate level to sell for, which is still far out of reach for the vast majority of people. Meanwhile, they want to allow residents of housing associations and council houses to buy their homes at a vastly reduced rate, with the costs absorbed by local councils who will need to flog off even more property to pay for it. In other words, things are about to get a whole lot worse.

Property in London is an investment that gives high returns. According to the Civitas think-tank, more than 70 per cent of new-build homes in Central London were bought up by overseas investors, mainly from Russia, China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Two-thirds of those were bought as investments rather than as a place to live. London is increasingly becoming a place that exists purely to make the very rich, very very rich. It is the logic of an uncontrolled profit-making machine. And the rest of us are being sidelined.

Even if we were to look at this through the cynical prism of free market economics, it’s a recipe for disaster. Housing benefit bills will continue to soar, as more and more Londoners find they can no longer afford to live in their homes. And then there are the very real questions of what will happen when working class people can no longer afford to live and work in the capital. Who will froth the cappuccinos, and clean the windows of the latest grotesque skyscrapers? Not even that – who will teach the kids, or work in the hospitals? Who’ll buy all that crap on Oxford Street?

London isn’t going anywhere, and they won’t be able to keep us riff-raff out forever. But with elections for London mayor and assembly coming next year, expect another round of politicians suddenly understanding what Londoners want, and then failing to deliver. 

Cover image: Garry Knight on Flickr (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic).

Patrick Ward is a journalist and writer in London. He likes historical non-fiction and sci-fi, which gives him the opportunity to read about what went wrong in the past and how it might be better ... Show More

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