Urban citizenship and London: the great wen


Perhaps the most compelling evidence of London’s separation from the rest of Britain is visible from my office window high up in Westminster. Cranes stick out of the Victorian skyline like flimsy tree branches, all the way from Kings Cross to London Bridge. According to figures quietly collected by the Health and Safety Executive, London has more cranes on its horizon than the entire rest of Britain combined. There is, on average, one crane for every square kilometre in the city.

More traditional economic data confirms what the presence of those cranes suggests. When, in 2008, most of the world fell in a deep and prolonged recession, London suffered merely a hiccup. The city, which is home to just 13% of Britain’s people, produces over a fifth of its national wealth. The average salary is 29% is greater than the national average. Almost every year for the past thirty, the gap has grown larger. Like Paris or New York, London is pulling away from its host country, becoming part of a cosmopolitan supranational world.

…[Do] Londoners have the right to dictate social policy in other parts of the UK?…

But as the country divides into two–a provincial, primarily white, slow-growing periphery, and an ever-expanding, international multi-cultural capital, a number of questions arise. The first question is whether Londoners have the right to dictate social policy in other parts of the UK? Another is the question of who has the right to benefit from London’s success. Perhaps the most controversial question is whether it matters that in the capital, less than half of the population are “white-British”, the ethnic majority in the rest of the country? I submit that Urban Citizenship offers a possible solution to all three questions.

London is a sui generis city in the UK. Its tastes and trends differ so much from the rest of the country that it’s hard to believe it is part of the same country as Nottingham, Portsmouth and Lancaster. In London, people rent flats. Outside London, they own houses. In London, over half of people get to work by public transport. Outside London, they drive. More than anywhere else in Britain, London is unequal. The most striking inequality is in schooling. Whereas London’s schools were once the worst in the country, today the opportunities that a British child has in London are altogether different from his twin, born outside of the city’s boundaries. In inner London, 21% of people send their children to private school – the proportion is 34% in Camden. Yet in the same borough, over a third of pupils qualify for free school meals. In Westminster – which despite its wealth, retains a lot of poor people in its northern half – 51% of children eligible for free school meals go onto higher education. By contrast, in Thurrock, Essex, a mere 20 miles from Canary Wharf’s glittering towers, just 5% do. To top it all off, Londoners are prissy eaters – a third of the organic food sold in England is sold there.

It is absurd that people who live in London dictate so closely the lives of those who live outside of it, as in effect, Londoners live in a different country.

And yet, London rules the rest of Britain like a fiefdom. It keeps growing, pulled up not only by its financial institutions, but by the strength of its media, culture and restaurants.  This state of affairs, where the city grows at the expense of the rest of Britain, sucking in its best talent and excluding the rest, cannot last. London’s growing economic independence ought to lead to the ability to make its own decisions, and also to greater political independence for the rest of Britain. If Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Leeds are to thrive, they need to be able to carve out their own futures, as they did in the Victorian era, away from London’s destructive flares.

It is absurd that people who live in London dictate so closely the lives of those who live outside of it, as in effect, Londoners live in a different country. Politicians in Berlin do not dictate social policy in Frankfurt or Munich, so why should those in London? We may begin to develop, or indeed redevelop, more independent political cultures throughout the country if we conduct a radical rethinking of citizenship.

A form of citizenship which overlaps with the widening social and economic cultures, and reflects with greater accuracy the range of concern and desired response throughout the country would be ideal. Urban Citizenship looks like the only feasible, long-term solution to the growing divide. As a form of regional, inclusive and consultative policy making, it would enable London’s residents to influence social policy within London only, giving residents of other cities greater control of policies affecting them.

Urban Citizenship would also address some of the more vexed local problems within the city. In the inner-London boroughs of Hackney, Wandsworth, Islington and Lambeth, an influx of the professional upper-middle-classes is turning once-poor areas into flash shopping and eating districts. Meanwhile, from Newham to Westminster single mothers on housing benefit are being told to move to Stoke, Hastings and Birmingham, because their benefits can no longer pay the rent. The financial clout of the rich is squeezing some of the poor and the middle-classes out: house prices in Brixton, Dalston and Bethnal Green are no longer cheap.

Nothing here is clear-cut. Where some people see a yuppified, ersatz inner city, others see areas that were once riddled with crime and drug dealing now transformed. Urban citizenship would give local residents some degree of management over their neighbourhoods, in that they could at least formally consider these issues. They would be able to have some say over whether the long-term unemployed in London have the right to stay there, occupying housing space that could be used by more ambitious people from the provinces – a much discussed issue in the British press.

Finally, there’s the most controversial of issues: ethnicity. Some 37% of Londoners were born abroad. The city draws in the foreign rich like flies around a light bulb: they buy up flats in Kensington and Chelsea, floating in periodically from Heathrow in cars with blackened window to host pool parties in basements beneath Georgian terraces. But it also remains, as George Orwell wrote in 1937, a “sort of whirlpool which draws derelict people towards it”: the hollow-eyed Africans who, early on winter mornings, ride the buses from Peckham, Barking and Woolwich to clean offices in the City and the West End, or the young Eastern European chancers who find themselves sleeping on cardboard boxes in the doorways of the gentlemen’s clubs off Piccadilly. As mentioned earlier, the “white-British” population of London forms a minority. Should decisions about London be made by people of a very different cultural background in the shires? Equally, is it fair that a cosmopolitan Londoner has a say over certain traditions in the British countryside, say, fox-hunting, for example? Again, a more localised form of citizenship would not only encourage greater participation and feelings of inclusion amongst migrants, but also enable people from all over the UK to make decisions about their own lifestyles.

If independent political cultures are fostered within the UK, and it seems that Urban Citizenship would allow for this, then perhaps the yawning separation between London and the rest of the country will begin to matter a little less.  And then perhaps when I look out of my window at the cranes stretching across the city, I won’t feel the slight guilt that I do for being part of this growing sore on the face of southern England – the Great Wen, as the socialist pamphleteer William Cobbett called it. I will perhaps feel a little bit more like a citizen – an Englishman, but also a Londoner.