Mind the Gap : London versus the rest

Monday night saw the first part of Evan Davis’s two parter on why London appears to be separating itself off as a separate macro economy from the rest of the UK.  In this first episode is was all about London.  Londinium.  Augusta (as the Romans called it) and the next programme will be about the rest of the UK.  Davis is a great television reporter – he is engaging, informative, economically educated and accessible.  I liked his style very much, and enjoyed the cut of his jib.  Yet, the domination of London’s economic power over the rest of the country is no new thing, when you consider history.  And perhaps, this was the problem with the programme in the first place, it’s decision to avoid much historical context.

15% of the British workforce lives here, but London generates more than a fifth of the British economy.  This calls to mind the 15 year old quote that for every £10 that the country produces, £1 is generated by the City alone – that’s just that one square mile, not the whole Greater London area.  It was no secret that throughout the 20th century, London has pulled in more workers, generated higher incomes and higher standards of living and provided more products and services than the rest of the UK.  Although the programme made a point of remembering the dominance of the cotton mills of the North in the 19th century – the economic output of which outstripped London without, perhaps, enriching the economic strengths of its working classes  – it strangely treated this London economic dominance as if it was a new thing we all work up with one day in 1984.    Why is the capital so dominant? it asked.    How is London’s strength borne out in its market structures?  This is a two centuries old question, one that began to be pertinent after the 18th century Industrial Revolution.  But, aside from this lack of historical precedence regarding the issue, this is a question that continues to demand answers.

What Davis was particularly good at was explaining the economic formula that London is wrapped up in – how businesses choose to develop next to other like minded business, how productivity is raised when workers work in spaces where they are designed to be together, and introduced me to a term I had not heard before – agglomeration economics  – and what was particularly interesting is how mutual cultural values inspire buildings to have close geographical proximity (the new Kings Cross Google UK Headquarters site, which had been chosen partly due to its close proximity to the new Central St Martins art school was used to illustrate this).    But then we cut to Boris Johnson, our Chief Fool, who, over a dyspeptic looking breakfast up the Shard, produced a metaphor regarding the London economy that seemed to be based entirely on sea anemones and jam.   Nothing he said made the remotest bit of sense.   Then we cut to a blow-dried hussy of an elderly estate agent, who was trying to sell the ugliest and most vulgar of Mayfair houses to his ugliest and most vulgar of his international clients for a whopping £40million.  It was a disgusting house – full of Grimm fairy tale gold leaf plates and sinister baths.  But it will, of course, be sold, as London has become centre of the universe for billionaire despots with little taste in soft furnishings and legions of cash stuffed in off shore accounts.  This was an anomaly of the London housing market, but not a fair representation, but it fuelled the idea that London is full of foreigners and their foreign money and, by Jove, can anything be done about it, begad?

Well of course it can’t.  Too much of London’s current wealth relies on a European single currency currently on life support and rich Greeks frightened of civil war.  London might have been a bit more down the toilet of life if it wasn’t for foreign money and oil barons using West One property as a capital asset holding mechanism in which they can store their sisters / hairdressers / aunties, whilst waiting for their own economies to become slightly less lethal and prone to imminent collapse.  Yet, when Davis spoke of the rising population of London, and the effect it would have on our City’s transport infrastructure, he failed to point out that even if the London population increases continue at their current slightly-higher-than-we-thought target, it won’t come near the high population rate of 1939.  And that was when London had less tubes, less nightbuses and more people walked about.  Now no one walks about.  If we go back even further, the average Victorian clerk, as pointed out in Judith Flanders’s lovely book “The Victorian City : Everyday Life in Dickens’s London” walked three miles to the City for work in the morning and three miles back again at night.  The city still had railways and omnibuses, but many people simply chose to walk. It was estimated that 200,000 clerks walked daily to the City by the mid-1860s.  You’ll notice if you walk anywhere, unlike the Circle Line, there is always room for everybody.

But alas, now Londoners are often living more than three miles from their local station, let alone their City desk.  You can only feel sorry for the nobly named Glyn Britton, who commutes daily to Old Street from his home in Stockport, presumably due to the rising house prices in London which mean he cannot live nearer the City.  But no mention was made of how much it was costing him per year to have a daily commute from London to Cheshire.  Astonishingly, National Rail Enquiries tell me than an annual season ticket from Stockport to London Euston would cost £13,300 per year (an average of £27.20 per journey).  So if Glyn stays in his job for ten years, he would have spent £133,000 on getting to work and back (this does not factor in the underground zone ticket he would also have to buy to get to the hip, bearded population of the Silicon Roundabout each day after his arrival at London Euston).  I’m not saying that you can buy a house here for £133,000 but in a land with such expensive rail fares as ours, you have to be earning a fair sight over the national average income to justify doing this.   I only hope his lovely Cheshire home is worth it.

Of course, earlier Londoners would have done this if something as nice as Virgin Trains had existed then,  but the question on Evan Davis’s lips was why can’t Glyn’s job be based in Manchester or Sheffield?  Why is he so limited as to have to come to London each day and no other city?  Well, that’s a bit like asking why is red red or why is green green.  It just is.  A series of accidents, unfinished planning, cultural and economic factors and educational and social circumstances have meshed themselves together in London in such a non-rational and strange way that you can’t repeat it anywhere else.  Because it has a special formula, like that creepy KFC colonel, and no one can tell you what it is.   And the more it works, the more are drawn here.  It’s the ultimate urban endless circle.  The more we decide to be seen as unique, the more unique we become.  Money pours into London because London knows what to do with it.  As anyone who disapproved of the BBC move to Salford can testify, failing to see the logic in putting London-centric jobs in a random northern town incites attacks of the “you’re a southern soft media twat from London” variety.  There were many reasons why the BBC move to Salford were illogical.  Not one of them was because of southern, supercilious London twats.  Anyway, of course the BBC move to Salford was a success!  It brought great changes to the area.  As Shaun Ryder was brilliantly quoted at the time :  “You can tell they’re all moving up to Salford because our Tesco has got a Finest range now”.

The alchemic formula that makes our City what it is has had us ruminating over its magical dynamism ever since the first Roman chariot rolled up the banks of the Thames.   They tried a bit of this guff with Birmingham, do you remember?  Britain’s second city or similar.  And then the EU began awarding various cities in Britain as that year’s City of Culture.  But an EU directive to support regionalism is nothing more than a drop in Mother Thames.  London, as Davis illustrates, is forging ahead in its hard, expensive way more than ever.  This week it was thrilling viewing, once you got over the vulgar horror of the house prices, watching Davis operate cranes in the new London Gateway development, and walk through areas of Crossrail stations we have never seen.  Will Davis present a solution for the economic disparity in the regions?   Since the demise of the cotton mill industry, hasn’t the North been waiting for its next moment in the sun?  The first episode focused on the exuberance brilliance of London. Next week, which focuses only on the provinces, should prove to be altogether far more sober and difficult viewing.   Poverty in the regions in the UK was shockingly prevalent in the Means Tested 1930s, and London’s financial glories of the 1980s was unlikely to be reflected in the ghoulish puddles on the streets of Doncaster or Leeds.  What makes Davis’s programme so disheartening for those outside of the magic circle of the M25 was that it twas ever thus.   The story of London’s current dominance is no isolated episode : history has too many examples of it – but it would have been nice to see more historical vantage points from Davis’s programme.

Right, see you in two weeks you bunch of soft Southerners.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday so our next instalment will be on Thursday March 20th.  Farewell until then, The London Bluebird xx


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