The Future of London
Forget the playboy sheikhs and night bus orphans for a second – what comes after that?
Since 2004, every few years someone updates The London Plan. It's a sort of manifesto on how to de-fuck our future. The first edition, published in 2004, when the city was still home to the kind of young, foolish dreamers who'd happily let a bald man like Ken Livingstone run it for them, estimated that the capital's population would reach 8.1 million by 2016. With three years to go, we've already overtaken that number.
Seems like a good reason to panic, right? Seems like a good reason to build a wall around the M25 and force all those young regional Brits with stars in their eyes and dreams in their hearts to stay home and make the most of fucking Yorkshire, right? Well, not necessarily according to Richard Burdett, who as well as being a mental optimist is also professor of Urban Studies at LSE. He reckons we could easily find the space for a whole other generation of people desperate to live near the Tate. Especially if we just thieved lots of good ideas from other countries: "You could build two Copenhagens at the same density – all four-storey buildings, basically – in the Thames Gateway alone," he says.
The Copenhagen comparison’s an interesting one. As London oozes out into the Thames Gateway and other Brownfield hinterlands earmarked for regeneration – Park Royal, huge chunks outside Croydon – it’s likely to drag a very Scandinavian type of Londoner along with it. Polite, heavy drinking, slightly inbred, totally middle-class.
Of the eighty to one hundred thousand people who are leaving London each year, most are "white, middle-class 30-year-olds with kids", according to Burdett. In other words, the kind of people who now go to gastropubs on Sunday afternoon rather than bass clubs on Friday night, the kind of people who probably still have half a pill stashed away in an antique jewellery box on the mantel of their restored fireplace.
But if you really wanted those people to stay in London, turning elevenses into brunch, how would you do it? Piece of piss, simply overturn centuries of elitism in the British education system, and get the state schools up on a par with the private ones: "If you were to achieve that," says Professor Burdett, "you'd have the same situation as you have in other European capitals, where people don't feel the need to move. Schools are at the heart of social equity, so if changes aren't made, I worry that London will become significantly more unequal than it already is."
In the event that that doesn't happen, the subsequent inequality is likely to be most stark in Zone 1. If you can't sell me oil, you probably won't be able to live there unless you're part of an anti-squatter property guardian scheme or a proud member of London’s new semi-orphaned night bus gangs. Iain Sinclair, the celebrated (and occasionally hated) psychogeographer and Hackney historian, put it bluntly: "Central London's properties will all be investment housing sold to people elsewhere who won't ever use them."
Not into the idea of central London turning into a ghost town soundtracked only by the roar of playboy Arabs' Bugatti Veyrons and the desperate howling of the poor? Don't start scouring the Slough property market just yet. If you've spent the early hours of the morning at one of Andy Blake's World Unknown parties or Peckham's Bussey Building recently, it won't surprise you to learn that hope lies in the south.
Well, some does at least: "Some places, like Peckham, Camberwell and Deptford, have strong creative, arty scenes," Stewart Home, an artist and writer who's also associated with the psychogeography movement, told me. His enthusiasm for south London is shared by both Sinclair and Burdett, but he also voiced similar reservations: "The end goal for a lot of those people, though, is to get their work shown or play gigs, or whatever, in galleries and venues in east London, because it's now established itself as the place you want your work to be seen as an up-and-coming creative.
"I think we've reached a bit of a stalemate in terms of areas where new, exciting cultural production is emerging."
Obviously, this fucking sucks, especially if you're one of those people who moved to the city because cities are where "new, exciting cultural" stuff is supposed to happen on a fairly regular basis. Nevertheless, now that they've built a train that actually goes there, it looks like south London is the safest bet if you're a property developer who wants to seize on an organic culture, build lots of loft conversions and price everyone whose parents didn't make a small fortune developing properties out of the area.
One of Andy Blake's World Unknown parties in South London
"If I knew where the next move was, I wouldn't be on the phone to you, I'd be a very rich man," Burdett told me, before making a schoolboy error by speculating that in fact White City, which the BBC are currently in the process of abandoning, is a place that is likely to "catch fire in terms of activity". Presumably you'll have to wait for Operation Yewtree to clear the rapists out, but after that the enormous flat land next to that horrible shopping centre will be a really exciting place to isolate yourself from everything cool or fun about London!
I don't know, maybe it doesn't matter where the artists and the young creatives go. Maybe it doesn't matter because, as Sinclair says, the internet means that "instead of being a battling, struggling figure, an artist is now someone who's surfing up a cloud on to a wave of technological echoes, or diving into a realm of virtual Xeroxes".
But to my mind it does matter – artists are famously "the shock troops of gentrification", and gentrification is the dawn of the bland. Plus, it's not just the cash that tends to follow them across the city, displacing everything around it in the process, but the party district, too. I don't know how many nauseous dawns Sinclair has seen in recently, but he agrees that where they go is important to the future of the city: "Where the artists end up living doesn't have to impact London," he says, "but it's likely that it will."
The unstoppable rise of the middle classes isn't all shitty though, and the people I spoke to could point to a couple of recent pluses. Home says that regeneration money has rid King's Cross of some of the petty crime, drug dealing and prostitution that the area has become known for. Burdett, meanwhile, enthuses about the city's relatively high remit for affordable housing – 35 percent: "When I say that figure at lectures in Brazil and the States, they think I'm nuts. They think I'm talking about a Communist, Stalinist state."
But Burdett bemoans the fact that similar cash isn't there to plough into things like schools and the NHS, because it's much more important to spend it on building bendy buses, decommissioning bendy buses, and buying armour for the riot cops. Oh, and endless polish for our Gherkin, Shard, Olympic Park and that Ferris wheel on the South Bank. "The imperatives are to create a vision of this city that is very grand," says Sinclair, "but it's not borne out on the ground."
Recently a conference was held where the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson announced a £50 million investment in Old Street and the magic beans growing on Silicon Roundabout. All very exciting for companies that work in media, digital design and other things your parents don't really understand, but there is a cost above that grant. "Whitecross Street used to be a great, cheap local market, but now it's just expensive food for office workers," Home says. The people who've lived there for decades already can't afford the facilities around them and it's only going to get worse."
A young creative from a company called "Urban Hymns" advertising expensive guitar lessons to teach other young creatives how to play Mumford & Sons songs – in London Fields. Guys, I think we just epitomised gentrification, we can all pack up and go home now.
The result of hikes in living costs is clear: Long-standing communities are being broken up and forced out of the city. Laters, history! Hello, tortured commuters, please come in and uproot the established narratives that gave London neighbourhoods their identities. Sinclair described this new phenomenon of transitory settlers as "appearing very rapidly and existing as much as a virtual reality as a reality", which kind of encapsulates that stand-offish apathy out-of-towners always complain about on the 18:45 train home from Victoria.
There is hope for the local communities, though.
"This may be a controversial thing to say," starts Professor Burdett, "but the Westfields – both east and west – have raised a sort of civic pride. They give people in the area aspiration and give the area they're in more of an identity. For example, people will now come from miles away to spend the day in Stratford, which I highly doubt would have happened five years ago."
I don't know, Brent Cross was the cutting edge of shopping cathedrals in the 90s, and only a sociopath would feel any civic pride about that place. But who am I to piss on the professor's chips? "The notion of many villages grouped together is beginning to become more true to how we experience the city," Burdett told me. "So I think multicentredness will become much more prominent." Home agreed, saying areas are becoming "much more ghettoised; people are starting to shop, eat, go out, socialise – everything – in the areas where they live, because everything is there for them nowadays."
So the future of London looks dependent on the same kind of factors it's always been dependent on – investment, education, affordable housing and social equality. Ultimately, without all that stuff, they'll be no one left in this city except the oligarchs, the homeless and the tourists. Sort it out London, I really don't want to move to a swamp in Essex.
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamie_clifton
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