A Tale of Two Cities

two cities

by Rozie Saunders | 10 July 2015

Are soaring property prices that push young Londoners out of their city, simply a price for London’s global success? Is London becoming a millionaires’ playground rather than a bustling model of urban living? We report on the city’s perceived identity crisis.

London is allegedly losing its sense of self. The consensus seems to be that ordinary people are being priced out of the housing market and, as a result, the identity of individual boroughs is being transformed by land-grabbers and developers of luxury flats. In this world-view, poverty is rebranded as ‘edgy’ by real estate investors (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/may/30/london-property-market-boom-housing-tower-hamlets), and increasingly those people who were driven to London for employment are being driven out again because they cannot afford to pay the rent and maintain a decent standard of living. London is mutating into a physical Swiss bank, each new housing development full of “safe-deposit boxes in the sky” that will only be occupied by a jet-setting population for part of the year. Socio-economic diversity made London great, but it is now slipping away.

“A Tale of Two Cities: Skyscrapers and Slums”, one of the “Justice, Money and Power” series of debates organised by the Institute of Ideas during the City of London Festival, examined this consensus and asked some difficult questions about the issues but also about the premise. Do we truly want diversity of people and place or should we be content when wealth ghettos (around the Shard, for instance) bring intangible investment to the capital? Besides whingeing, what else can we do in the wake of greedy private developers with a public sector policy of austerity?

All of the panelists at Skyscrapers and Slums agreed that the crux of the London issue was housing. Solve housing for the 99% and London might achieve redemption for its kow-towing to foreign investors at the expense of its locals. The original charm of the city could be restored.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive at the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA), had trouble articulating what exactly was so charming about London, but he was sure it was being lost. Like many people, he feels that the essential character of the city is draining away, and this loss is somehow London’s own fault. London’s inhabitants feel guilty, deserving of whatever imminent disaster is headed their way because they have willfully ignored the increasing wealth gap and let the city sell its soul. So if we chose to allow – or did nothing to stop – London’s transformation into a rich-person’s plaything, why all the hand-wringing? Perhaps because it is not too late to save what is left of the indefinable character of the city.

Baroness Kishwer Falkner, Liberal Democatic spokesperson on foreign affairs, reminded us of the context for this debate. London may be losing itself, and we may have trouble finding somewhere decent to live, but we are living through an era of increasing urbanization unprecedented in human history. In this context, affordability and therefore socio-economic diversity is an issue that is not unique to London, but is replicated all over the world. Falkner suggested, however, that not all diversity is good diversity. We should be less worried about socially engineering diversity through building affordable housing and more worried about encouraging businesses. Employers apparently require diversity, and their hiring needs will retain London’s breadth of society.

Seb Klier, the policy and campaigns manager for Generation Rent (a charity campaigning with private renters for professionally managed, secure, affordably rented homes), entered the discussion from a renter’s point of view. Often vilified by existing communities who feel they are being destroyed by buy-to-let schemes, Klier wanted to look at what life is like for those renters unlucky enough to not have a stable community in which to participate.

Housing in London is failing people, with many tenants spending well over half their income on rent on cramped, squalid apartments (or just individual rooms) far removed from their place of work. More importantly, renters don’t have security of tenancy: they are increasingly vulnerable because they cannot be sure if they will be living in the same place for longer than a year. Klier stated this system was unsustainable. Landlords and letting agents should be regulated to help create security of tenancy. Landlords have huge power over people’s health and the quality of their lives, and should be held accountable. One possible fix would be a consistent policy of rent controls. Even just achieving security of tenancy for the majority of renters might help retain the heart of existing communities, and soften the stomp of unregulated capitalism on the ant-like Londoner’s life.

The cohesion of communities in London was another theme underlying much of the debate. Matthew Taylor suggested that London society is becoming increasingly fragmented. There is little solidarity between social classes, and short of another disaster similar in impact to the 7/7 bombings, we may not ever become unified again. Our fragmentation creates a city that is not resilient to change and will not be able to return to its original state after disaster. Furthermore, London requires unity and resilience to preserver its existing sense of place against development, preventing any further detrimental changes to the city’s character.

The concept of resilience to change, instead of adaptability to future challenges, is dangerously enabling of the unjustifiably fearful mentality that plagues much of the Western world. Resilience implies that we want to freeze progress, and do not want any change at all, even for the better. Furthermore, part of the essential character of cities is their rapid transformation. Cities change. Unlike country villages, cities have an undeniable dynamism that attracts people. If London just stops, everyone but the tourists will leave.

Alastair Donald from Future Cities Project thought London’s fundamental problem is that we are not building nearly enough. Concentrating on tweaking how we manage our existing housing stock will not hugely alleviate the housing crisis, he argued. Instead of the general atmosphere of risk aversion, we need an overarching vision to build. The UK is failing to build even half the new homes required for the population, and this dire situation is exacerbated in London where an “affordable” property (which makes up less than 30% of new development in London) is priced at £380,000. Given the scale of London’s housing crisis, merely providing better management of existing stock is akin to sitting on our hands.

“Skyscrapers and Slums” was a heated debate, with topics as broad as the current zeitgeist and as narrow as rent control. Few conclusions were made, but most agreed that London is losing any meaning beyond property value. How to resolve this crisis of character? The audience, including a Green, a UKIP member and a revolutionary were heard discussing these matters long into the night. Socio-economic diversity may be dying out in London, but it is not yet beyond salvation.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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