London: The world in a city

The world is coming to London. As the UK capital flings open its doors this week to the globe’s finest athletes and their followers, the city labelled “the greatest in the world” by Boris Johnson, its ebullient mayor, is primed to show its best face – however much locals may grumble about congestion and preferential treatment for the bigwigs of Olympic officialdom.

It may not have the breakneck pace of Shanghai or the climate of Sydney, but there is a palpable buzz about the city. Its dynamic economy has so far withstood the worst of the financial crisis, and with its thriving cultural life and world-class universities, it attracts talented migrants, students and businesspeople.

It remains “the most complete compendium of the world”, as Victorian novelist Henry James called it at the apogee of Britain’s imperial power – more than a third of its residents were born outside the UK and 300 languages are spoken. Some nationalities form a city within a city – there are 300,000-400,000 French in London, according to French authorities. The gravitational pull is reflected in data that last week showed an 11.6 per cent population rise in the decade to 2011.

Money is flowing in, too, according to Ernst & Young, which put it at the top of its European league for foreign direct investment projects last year. The world’s super-rich have made a beeline for the city, attracted by a benign tax regime for non-domiciled residents and distance from the eurozone. Ben Rogers, of the Centre for London think-tank, says: “The city’s property market has become a reserve currency for foreign nationals.”

But its wealth coexists with extremes of deprivation and poverty. The difference between high and low wages is greater than in any other part of the UK – and has grown more pronounced in the past decade. And while the lowest-paid Londoners earn no less than those in other parts of the country, their position worsens dramatically when the city’s soaring housing costs are taken into account.

The first serious attempt to record London’s poverty was made 120 years ago by Charles Booth, whose minutely researched maps revolutionised social science. Today the Financial Times reproduces a modern take on his study by Oliver O’Brien, a cartographer from University College London. He says: “London’s mix of rich and poor changes dramatically from street to street. But what you see even 120 years after Booth is that many of the patterns remain the same.”

Though the classifications at the lower end may be less damning – Mr O’Brien has dropped Booth’s category of “vicious, semi-criminal” – the new map shows that areas around the Olympic park to the east of the city still house pockets of deprivation. Elsewhere, places such as Stockwell, south of the river, have declined from Victorian respectability; while the industries of Clerkenwell, to the north of St Paul’s Cathedral, have given way to loft apartments and offices.

The vaunted benefits of regeneration plans triggered by the games – including the remodelling of the 500-acre site as housing, offices, shops and schools – could be transformative. But the legacy of London 2012 will be declared a success only when the colours in these areas begin to lighten.

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