Why You'll Never Leave London, Even Though It's Killing Your Soul

It's often repeated that people on low incomes will leave as the capital gets more expensive. That just isn't happening.
Young couple in London
Photo by Emily Bowler

If that wide-eyed dreamer Dick Whittington were to come to London today, he'd be fucked. He’d end up doing a series of unpaid internships at digital marketing agencies called things like Everest and Spurt!, he’d live as a property guardian in an industrial estate in Barking, minesweep Kopparbergs in the local Spoons, and his cat would have been kicked out by his landlord who doesn’t allow pets, rather than sold for a fortune. Broke, bereft and catless, our aspirational legend would turn tail to head home.


These are the clear findings (I'm paraphrasing slightly) of a report by the Sutton Trust published last week: London “is off-limits to ambitious people from poorer backgrounds who grow up outside the capital”, as the Sutton Trust founder put it. Instead, the report concludes, the city has become “the global elite epicentre”. Even the claim that its streets are paved with gold seems to be false.

It’s easy to hate London. If you live outside it, it gets all the money, all the political power, all the media attention, all the jobs, all the cultural glitz, and just to add insult to injury, it has buses that turn up more than once a month. If you live in it, you pay £1,625pcm to sleep in a toilet-bedroom and ingest diesel fumes every time you go outside.

The question of who London is for is a vexed and important one, and we keep seeing it answered – in the negative. It's not for the Grenfell fire victims and survivors. It's not for the tens of thousands of families sent to dodgy hostels miles away from their homes and communities, because the landlord has hiked the rent. It's not for the Latin communities in Elephant and Castle or Seven Sisters. It’s not for the people being handed over from rogue landlords to the immigration authorities. It's not for the grassroots gig venues and clubs being closed. It’s not for the kids contracting asthma from the pollution, or the teenagers whose youth clubs have been shut down.


And yet there is no evidence of a mass exodus, or even gradual depopulation. Indeed, the GLA’s London Plan projects around one million more people will be living in the city by the end of the 2032 – breaking the 10 million barrier. Not all of those will be Qatari princes, Russian oil barons or even our plucky homegrown rentier landlords. The majority will be ordinary working people, from the UK and abroad.


A housing protest in London in 2015 (Photo by Chris Bethell)

There is a recurring argument that it will become impossible for poorer working people to live in London, and many will “have to leave”. This misunderstands how major global cities work. “The capital will not be sustainable unless people in the public services can afford to live here. We are pricing them out,” Labour MP Joan Ruddock said in 2014. Her intentions were good, but the fact is that the capital will be “sustained”, and the vast majority of those who are being “priced out” will stay, and suffer those prices.

Lower-paid workers will remain where the jobs are – but they will be forced to live further and further away from the centre, in more cramped and poorer quality accommodation, and will have to spend more of their wages on rent and travel, commute for longer hours; and their finances, their social and personal lives, and their physical and mental health will all decline accordingly.

It bears repeating – not least in any discussion of Brexit, or the December election result – that the UK has the worst regional inequality of any major western European economy. The resentment this generates towards the capital is understandable. But the way London functions – and central government’s attitude to a disparity that has been steadily growing over decades – hurts all ordinary people, inside and outside the M25. "Islington" does not mean rich any more than "northern" means working-class (though you wouldn't know it, given our wretched political discourse).


The same grim levels of inequality exist inside the capital, as do between London and the regions. In 2017, the EU’s data organisation Eurostat found that “Inner London West”, incorporating Kensington, Chelsea and Notting Hill, was the richest area in the whole of Europe, comfortably beating the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg into second place. Alongside its obscene riches, this area also contains Notting Dale, home to Grenfell Tower, and one of the ten most deprived wards in the entire country.

In our regionally unbalanced economy, meritocracy is a myth, suggests the Sutton Trust report. We can shorten those findings: meritocracy is a myth, full stop. Look upon London’s luxified skies, crenellated with hideous sex toys, empty penthouse flats and giant glowing baubles, and ask if they represent evidence of a society where talent and virtue are rewarded.

As it happens, the Dick Whittington myth was briefly spun into a kind of reality, a few years ago. In a 2013 PR stunt, phone company HTC covered a stretch of road in Bermondsey with a gold “cobble” effect, to promote their new smartphone – they also made five of them plated with real 18 carat gold, valued at £2,750 per phone. Every society creates fables that illuminate the world they live in – a daft HTC marketing campaign is a perfect one for ours.