London: a city in peril, or in clover?

Well, that touched a nerve. When I wrote last Sunday that London is eating itself, it provoked more than 1,100 comments, and a comparable response on Twitter. The overwhelming view was that there was something in the thesis, that an important part of London’s being is threatened by the forces of residential land values. “London is now a peculiar offshore financial centre that turns out to be onshore...” was one paraphrase. “Market forces are killing London,” was another.

Some reported on places that didn’t get mentioned in the article, where similar squeezes are going on – Earl’s Court, Robin Hood Gardens in east London. There were some voices from New York, where the story sounds familiar: this “essay about the black hole of superwealth of London should serve as a caution for NYC”.

The writer Rachel Johnson said: “this is a storming, important, big, piece. I agree with Rowan Moore’s every word.” As her brother is the mayor who has presided over the city as it has reached its current state, this was a tweet to treasure.

Naturally, not everyone agreed. “It’s not in decline,” commented Magic Flugelhorn, “don’t believe the hype. There are perfectly pleasant bits still around and it’s still the coolest place to be. Load of whingeing ninnies – if people don’t like living in the best city in the world, just move somewhere else. It’s not rocket science.” “The usual London-hating shit,” said Ayres bakery. “People have short memories of when London was shit. Now it’s great let’s hate it.”

Some pointed out the ways in which London has improved: “The postwar exodus from London that resulted in a declining population… was accompanied by a 50-year decline, during which London really was dirty, antiquated, slow, home to great deprivation and unappealing for both residents and business with periods of real house-price falls, proper entropy. It now vies as the leading global financial centre, is blessed with extraordinary diversity, and is home to an amazing world-class cultural and artistic community.”

Sarah Sands, editor of the Evening Standard, used her column to make the Ayres bakery point a little more nicely. She assailed “Londonphobes” and: “The doom-laden view, rehearsed again in the Observer, that London will destroy itself with its unstoppable urge to build.”

“Developers are not stupid,” she said. “It is not in their interest to create wastelands.” As evidence she cited the redevelopment of the old BBC television centre at White City, where “the property developers are fervent about appearing to be welcoming. The new Soho House that is being built on the site looks likely to make the area fashionable at last. But the developers also want the virtuous paradigm of housing, studios, shops, clever people and green spaces.”

It so happened that my piece coincided with another by journalist Rafael Behr on his reasons for leaving London, and was followed by blogger and author Cory Doctorow on his departure to LA: “We want to live in a city that’s a livable place to work, where we can raise our family, and where we can run our respective small businesses. But London is a city whose two priorities are being a playground for corrupt global elites who turn neighbourhoods into soulless collections of empty safe-deposit boxes in the sky, and encouraging the feckless criminality of the finance industry.” Which flurry of articles prompted Nick Cohen, of this parish, thus: “Could all hacks planning pieces on why they’re leaving London write them now? We’ll have a bumper supplement on Friday and get it over with.”

So, just to be clear, I am not a Londonphobe. I don’t hate the city. I am not planning to leave. I do not oppose all building – I don’t think we are building enough, or in the best ways. As my opening paragraphs made clear I recognise that there are good things about the place now. “In some ways the city has never been better,” I wrote. I don’t think it is doomed: it is an exceptionally robust entity that has survived much worse.

Is London's character under threat?
Is London’s character under threat? Photograph: Sophia Evans/Observer


But, precisely because I love it and its best qualities – in particular its historic ability to offer space to almost anyone – I believe that it is worth pointing out when they are endangered. It is worth staying and arguing the point, in the belief that the city and its residents deserve better than the smug notion that the spread of Soho House means that everything’s all right, and in the hope that something might be done.

Which is not a vain one. London’s history and literature is full of vigorous descriptions of its failings. Take the Earl of Rosebery, first chairman of the London County Council and later prime minister, speaking in the late-19th century: “60 years ago a great Englishman, Cobbett, called it a wen. If it was a wen then, what is it now? A tumour, an elephantiasis sucking into its gorged system half the life and the blood and the bone of the rural districts.” I actually think the Earl was exaggerating, but such diatribes were not always wrong. It was only because people kicked up a fuss that the city’s sewers were built, parks created, slums cleared, air cleaned and historic buildings preserved.

Only one person in all this did I want to punch, the commenter who wrote that people on low incomes are not being “forced” out of London: “They are simply unable to pay their rent because of an eminently reasonable cap on welfare claims. They are more than welcome to stay if they can fund their own rent.” This spectacularly overlooks an essential point, which is that the absurd price of housing is not an act of pure economic nature but one created in part by public policy’s encouragement of house price inflation.

More widely, there is an argument that London’s problems are the result of market forces, the inevitable if mildly regrettable downside of its spectacular success as a centre of finance and creativity. Supply-and-demand, old chap. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Which, again, assumes that the economy exists in a realm of pure apolitical economic abstraction, and overlooks the ways in which, going back to the Great Fire and before, public bodies have had to clean up the messes created by under-regulated commerce.

The most reasonable question in all this is, what exactly might be done? A full answer was beyond the scope of an article which, according to some commenters, was already overlong. But some useful steps would be the addressing of London’s housing needs to a more serious degree than has so far happened, the consideration of all possible approaches to it, and the recognition that the private sector is not going to fix it alone. Which would also have to recognise that a city is not just made out of housing. And it would be a good start if the city – its leaders, people and whoever else – could articulate some expression of what sort of city they want it to be. Is it enough to wallow in terms like “world class” or praise its “buzz”? Is it too much to ask that it is a place where people at every level of society might find a home, work and identity?