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I can date the moment I fell in love with London. It was April 1990. I laid a hand on the Norman wall of St Bartholomew’s church in West Smithfield and fell for all those human stories that it had witnessed through the centuries.
Political life has given me many new angles on London, its past and present, and how this city is becoming riven with faultlines – giant crevasses of low wages and insecure jobs, impossibly expensive housing and punishingly costly transport.
It is rapidly becoming a massively difficult, even impossible, place, for many of its inhabitants to survive in. Yet history can give us a guide on how to make London livable and affordable for all of its residents, a transformation essential for its economic and social stability.
It is important to begin with a long-term problem. London has at its centre a massive black hole that sucks in money and talent. And it spits out ruined human lives, while playing a huge role in creating global crises from financial crashes to developing world debt.
Boris Johnson might have the title Mayor of London, but at the heart of the capital is the Square Mile, over which he has little say – a tiny city state with vast global reach through its colonial outposts, the tax havens. On day one of the Occupy protests, I stood at its heart and saw a little of the veil over the City torn back. It is a tear that is only going to widen if we fail to regulate and restrain our financial industries.
The City of London Corporation has powers dating back to before William the Conqueror but, while it once stood up to kings to defend its citizens and provided a safety net for its poor, it is now the representative of global financial capital, with an anti-democratic weight that hangs heavy on British society. That weight needs to be lifted, the City as a separate entity abolished and its vast resources put to the good of all Londoners.
London’s economy must be much more than the City. That imbalance has grown as manufacturing has disappeared and food production has vanished from the city’s hinterland. I live in Camden, which even in the 1960s was a haven of manufacturing industries and employment. The last large piano manufacturer, once one of 300 in what was a hub for the craft, closed in 1970.
We might have Silicon Roundabout, but there are questions about the economic and social returns of an industry in which a handful win huge, and others just feed the maws of the Apple Store and Google Play. And we have retailing – lots of it and dominated by multinational companies and low-paid, insecure jobs. Neither is the foundation of London’s future.
Food supply, in the age of climate change, massive loss of arable soils and rising prices, must be taken seriously. I used to live in Holborn, where there was once a dairy that supplied milk fresh from the cow. That will never return, but we do need to restore the ring of market gardens and orchards that once surrounded the city.
That has begun: I recently visited OrganicLea, a workers’ co-operative in Chingford, in the northeastern suburbs, that is making a valiant start, but there is a vast distance to go towards food sovereignty and security for London.
Restoring manufacturing and food production – part of the “reshoring” trend being increasingly reported in the media – would help to recreate a range of employment and opportunities for small businesses and co-operatives to flourish, which is essential if we are to rebalance the capital’s economy, and provide the decent, secure jobs that Londoners need.
On the living wage, London has been a leader – pushed by the two Green Party London Assembly members – but only 1.3 per cent of low-paid workers have benefited. Cleaners working for TfL and Met Police security staff are still struggling by on the national minimum wage of £6.19 an hour, among the 680,000 adults in London living in in-work poverty. What we need is national action to make the minimum wage a living wage.
Today, the minimum wage delivers a monthly take-home pay of £913. There is no borough in London where that will make the rent of the cheapest two-bed home affordable. The soaring cost of rent, combined with the “bedroom tax”, threatens to create another big change. Rich and poor living cheek by jowl has always been a characteristic of the city, and a safety valve. And after the second world war, the massive provision of council housing ensured decent standards and affordability for nearly all.
Yet increasingly we see the centre emptied of all but the wealthy, heading towards the Chelsea model of a giant pied-à-terre for the global plutocratic class. If only the rich can afford Zone 1 and 2, while the struggling middle cling on in 3 and 4, and others are compelled to the outer reaches, then we’re fast heading towards the Paris banlieue model – not something to emulate.
We must return to the postwar model of council housing. And we need to stop inflating house prices with government-inspired bubbles. Rental agents need to be regulated, and rents reined in.
History provides further lessons. In Victorian times, floods of clerks walked from Islington to the City. “Active transport” – walking and cycling – needs again to be at the heart of the way we move around London. The cheap train fares that allowed suburbs such as Walthamstow to develop as working men’s havens need to be echoed in future Tube and bus pricing.
London is, and will remain, a world city. But now that globalisation has hit the buffers, it needs to return to being a more self-sufficient and more equal city, with a balanced mixed economy built around small businesses and co-operatives. That fits neatly with the need to restructure to provide a range of decent-paying, secure, economically sustainable jobs that the people of London can build their lives around.
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