No escape from Mammon? London is increasing in power as a money magnet but we are not planning for more people with better quality of life. Image: Cityscape Digital
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The London problem: has the capital become too dominant?

The dominance of the capital threatens to choke the life from the rest  of the United Kingdom. We must act before it is too late

The referendum on Scottish independence is, at heart, not a vote about Scotland. It’s a vote about London. The choice facing Scots is whether they trust each other enough to sever the umbilical cord: London largesse, London-based decision-making, London hegemony. London divides the UK in a way that no other country in Europe is divided.

Indeed, London is a divided city in its own right: it is home to the greatest concentration of poverty in western Europe. At least two of its boroughs – Hackney and Tower Hamlets – are among the ten most deprived in England. And yet politicians such as Greg Clark, the minister for universities, science and cities, tell us that Londoners are 69 per cent more productive, in GDP generated per head, than citizens elsewhere in the UK.

It is worth dwelling on Clark’s figures (below), both for what they reveal and for what they hide. Clark used the figure of 69 per cent to try to demonstrate that London was not so different from other capital cities in terms of economic dominance. But he did not take into account the size of London’s population relative to the rest of the UK. London is small compared to, say, Seoul, or Tokyo; consequently its economic dominance is even more pronounced.

The only city that takes a greater share of national product than London is Moscow. Paris takes a large but slightly lower proportion and so, for well over half a century, the French have referred to “Paris et le désert français”. The English talk about their own division simply, and less dramatically, as the problem of “the north”. A plan is needed for the north, we are often told; but that is impossible if there is no plan for London.

There is nothing inevitable about living with high rates of national inequality. We are not in some imaginary global race where everywhere is becoming similarly unequal. At the lower end of Clark’s list is Vienna, whose citizens were apparently only 30 per cent more productive than the average Austrian; even more equitable is Stockholm, at 23 per cent; and Tokyo and Seoul, each with a rate below 15 per cent. Of course, almost all that extra London money flows into the pockets of the richest residents. The median Londoner is not much better off than the average citizen of the UK.

What exercises many Scots right now is that the rich Londoners they hear most from appear to believe that there is no alternative to these inequalities and that the rest of the UK may even benefit from the trickle-down of some of the wealth of an ever richer capital. Growing inequalities undermine the case that Scotland is “better together” with London and the idea that Scots might moderate the arrogance of London’s elite should they remain in the Union with England.

It is taking a long time for the English chatter to turn towards the realisation that the Scottish vote is a judgement on London – and on the desirability of being linked so closely to what can appear to be a selfish, often stupid and always dominating force. It is hard to think of a scenario that would shake London from its trajectory of growing inequality and drift towards being a tax haven for the world’s super-rich.

Of all the scenarios I can imagine, and each is unlikely to occur, it is Scotland voting Yes to independence that might most obviously dent the English capital’s prestige. How will Londoners explain why, if being attached in some way to London is so beneficial, the Scots chose to leave? What other event, more than such a rejection, would encourage the introspection needed among the English about where they are heading?

Other scenarios are easy to imagine but are more unpredictable in outcome, and not necessarily desirable in the short term. A run on sterling is seldom mentioned today, but sterling is a weak currency backed up by an indebted set of one small and three very small nations. A second banking crisis is far from impossible and would hurt London more than anywhere else on the planet. Or think of climate change bringing persistent rain, followed by the flood waters of the Thames meeting a particularly high spring tide coupled with a storm surge. You can begin to imagine some of the scenarios that the cabinet’s emergency Cobra committee might find a little tricky to deal with.

So what would a serious “London plan” be? What could offer a more sustainable future for the English capital and English regions, irrespective of the choice being made north of the border in September?


Technically, a London plan already exists in the form of the Mayor of London’s Spatial Development Strategy. In many ways this is a laughable document; though mostly tedious, it serves to demonstrate that there is no plan. To save you the trouble of searching for the best jokes it’s worth knowing that paragraph 3.22 of the latest version (October 2013) states, on provision of housing, that: “The probability-based approach adopted in London to address this has already been tested and found to be robust.”

In truth, there hasn’t been a proper London plan for some time. The Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) studied regional trends in the UK under New Labour and came to the conclusion that London stood out in stark contrast: “There was no autonomous private-sector job creation in decaying regions like the North-East or West Midlands during this period; and precious little full-time job growth anywhere outside London. Between 1997 and 2010, London on its own accounted for 43 per cent of all extra full-time jobs created in the UK, and London is now the only region of the UK capable of creating new full-time private jobs. And, again frighteningly, there is no movement of surplus population from the periphery to the centre.”

The CRESC researchers explained that London grows through immigration from the rest of Europe. It does not soak up surplus labour from the rest of the UK but, instead, sees more people leave it to settle in the rest of the UK than those who come in. And it is not just for jobs that people are coming to London. It is now thought that in a good year for overseas recruitment London universities may admit more students from outside the UK than from places in the UK outside London. The more frequently people move across borders and the longer the distances they travel, the less closely tied the capital becomes to the rest of Britain.

By early this year, the trends identified by CRESC had become embedded with the help of the coalition government after the 2008 crash. The Centre for Cities reported that London had accounted for 80 per cent of private-sector job growth between 2010 and 2012. That was ten times more than for the second-fastest-growing city in that period, the UK’s second city of finance: Edinburgh. Whereas there had been public-sector job cuts in most cities, the national government was increasing the number of state-funded jobs in London by 66,300. By contrast, Edinburgh lost more than 3,000 jobs of this type over the same period.

The north-south divide widened more rapidly after 2010 and started to become a stable feature of many British maps. This is evident from the geographical patterns seen with so many trends, from the rise in shoplifting (see Figures 2 and 3 below) through to the proportion of people who had bought a home for the first time in 2007 and who were still in negative equity seven years later. In the early 1990s, negative equity was worse in London, not in the north.

As London moves away from the rest of Britain economically, other areas begin to drop off the map. Scotland is often missing from the most recent maps used by social scientists, because data is no longer collected in the same way there.


What can be done about London’s economic dominance? The first thing might be to accept a few truths. The second is to act on that understanding. The third is to speculate on what might happen if we don’t act.

What happens when one does not plan? It is worth looking at the more laissez-faire attitude in some US cities. Look at the low-density sprawl and absolute car dependency of Los Angeles and the power blackouts of California. Look at poorly planned megacities in poorer parts of the world to see how bad crowding on pavements can become and how long a commute can get, and look to all the worst-planned cities for where ordinary people pay the most simply for the right to live and work in the city.

The truths we must accept in order to avoid this future are not unpleasant, but certainly many of us do not want to accept them. London is growing and poised to grow quickly. It is Europe’s only megacity, though in less than a century it has dropped in rank from the largest city in the world by population to 25th largest. Its nearest competitors for megacity status, Cairo, Istanbul and Moscow, lie on the edge of Europe and are not getting that much closer politically or demographically.

It is not so much the success of London’s financial industry that is causing its wealth and influence to grow as the curiosity and aspiration of a huge number of mostly young adults from around the world. These youngsters have set their heart on living and working in London, at least for a few years. Forty years ago it was the Irish, Welsh and above all the Scots who came to live in London in unusually high numbers.

From Danes or Frenchmen who believe their country is holding back their entrepreneurial zeal, through to the nouveaux riches of China and India looking for a luxury second home, and even refugees without papers who need somewhere to work for a pittance but have a chance, London is attractive to millions. London speaks the world’s second language and the first language of the internet. No matter who you are, you won’t stand out as odd in London. It has surpassed even New York and Singapore as the favour­ite global bolt-hole of the super-rich.

London will grow; the only question is by how much, and how well-planned that growth will be. Government rhetoric suggests that nationally we will soon be building 200,000 homes a year but will have zero net migration. Given recent trends, both claims insult the voters’ intelligence. Nor, together, are they tenable. There is one good reason to build houses and it is for the immigrants we should expect to come, those who have been coming for many years now and whose numbers were boosted by the financial crash. If emigration were greater than immigration in future years there would be very little need to build new houses. Soon, given the age structure, many more people will die each year than will be born in England, even if fertility rates do not fall further as they have done across the rest of Europe. Simply refurbishing the old stock would result in enough homes for all of “Generation Rent”. And so many would not have to rent if they did not allow their elected politicians to help landlords evade so much tax, and make it desirable to be a private landlord. England has enough homes for everyone living here but not enough to cover those whose likely arrival we should plan for.

The last time the UK had a recession and net inward migration was in the 1930s, an effect of the 1929 crash. It was then that we built many of London’s suburbs. Partly we built them as fewer people emigrated from England: there were fewer opportunities abroad during the Great Depression. We built them also because migration from even more depressed Scotland, Ireland and Wales, as well as immigration from further afield, was increasing demand. Today is similar, except people are travelling from further within Europe. Policymakers in the European Commission refer to this internal movement of people as “mobility” across the EU rather than migration, but it will be some time before such language from across the Channel permeates our thinking.

Without immigration, there is no sensible reason to build new homes rather than renovate old ones – unless we want to see our existing housing stock shared out even more unfairly. We need “Pocket homes” for singles and couples without children. We need to time our building of homes in London to fit in with expansion of public transport and cycle routes. We need to encourage the value put on walking so as not to increase our levels of air pollution, already the highest recorded in western Europe. (Some argue that levels are higher in central Paris.) But all this would require a decent plan. The free market does not co-ordinate spatially and temporally; it reacts rather than instigates.

Acting on the understanding that London is going to grow requires recognising where London’s real boundaries lie. Oxford and Cambridge are de facto outlying suburbs of the capital. Oxford’s soon-to-be-opened second mainline rail station will be just over an hour’s commute from central London. If we do not provide better housing closer to the centre of the capital, the effects will be felt a very long way out. London relies on far too much long-distance commuting, to the detriment of many people’s lives.

We must build high-density, high-quality housing that is affordable. The smoke and mirrors of those with a vested interest in house-price inflation and high rents makes this sound impossible. Given that so many people are willing to pay so much to live in London, couldn’t they all be housed there a little more cheaply, yet still have the actual costs of providing that housing more than adequately covered? They could – but not at rates of return that would allow the richest 1 per cent to carry on getting richer as quickly as they do now. London needs both rent regulation and enhanced housebuilding.

But where are we to build? Our greenbelts were designated at a time when we did not understand the extent of the floodplain. Existing greenbelt land needs to be swapped, acre for acre, for land that really should never be built on; land where we should expect more floods as rainfall becomes more erratic. We should protect ecologically valuable land that is under threat. All that should become true greenbelt, not uninspiring farmland. As London expands, it should build not only upwards, but also on some of the higher land on the edges – but only where there is an environmental argument to do so; and not in small, car-dependent towns further away from the centre of London.

At present, the policies set out by the coalition government’s “Ecosystem Markets Task Force” allow builders to offset the destruction of Sites of Special Scientific Interest by, for instance, planting a new oak wood if they build over an ancient one. This has to be stopped. Greenbelts don’t prevent urban sprawl; the sprawl just hops over them, increasing commuting times outside them and house prices inside. Good-quality, high-density living prevents sprawl.

Much of the building that will be needed for the new migrants who will come (and help reduce our national debt) should be within the present boundary of Greater London. Many people argue that there is little justification for giving planning permission for new buildings within London with fewer than five storeys. At these densities, enough people arrive to sustain local street life. Cafés and local shops are found across Barcelona, a city that is four times as dense as London in its heart. But London also needs wider pavements, more cycle lanes, more one-way streets with just a single lane for cars, and far fewer lorries and taxis trying to squeeze through its streets.

Far more imaginative policies than better traffic control can be thought up to make the capital more liveable. There is no need to try to pack every last national institution into London. Why not move parliament somewhere more affordable, to a place where MPs won’t need huge housing allowances to be able to live and work while distancing their lives from those of their constituents? But if parliament were to be relocated outside London, where would that be?

One obvious answer is the first stop from London on High Speed 2, Birmingham. Members of the House of Lords, such as Norman Tebbit, who complain that they couldn’t live anywhere near their workplace could easily find a home in Coventry, or nearby Sparkhill, with perhaps more homes built on brownfield sites there, relieving the pressure on London. The old buildings in the capital could be kept for ceremonial occasions and as tourist attractions, but there is no need to require our elected representatives to battle their way through to the neighbourhoods least representative of the lives of almost all of their constituents.

There is much else in London that does not need to be there. Much can move out to make way for the almost inevitable influx. (It is worth remembering here that there are at least two possibilities that would make that influx not inevitable. The first would be Britain leaving the EU and revoking the free movement of labour. The second would be an economic crash in London that was not part of a worldwide financial meltdown – due to a generally unforeseen run on sterling that required sharp hikes in interest rates. The effects of either would be similar.)

Finally, what might make for a better-planned future? We seldom consider the most liveable megacity in the world, the one with the lowest crime rate and highest life expectancies: Tokyo. What helped Tokyo become what it is today? Very equitable income distribution certainly helps, but that was not all. It was after the great property crash of 1992-93 that Tokyo’s planners were able to say, with some force, that following the money and doing what the market suggested did not result in the best overall outcome. Satisfying the wishes of innumerable pairs of buyers and sellers never results in an equilibrium. Only someone as mathematically unimaginative as an orthodox economist could believe that.

The great London residential property-value crash may be years away, but what is our plan for its aftermath, if indeed it happens? A Japanese colleague sent me data showing how the average price of residential land in Tokyo more than doubled in value in the year to 1987, stayed very high until 1990, but then fell back to 1986 prices by 1996 and has remained low ever since (see Figure 4, below). Life as they knew it did not end in Japan when the value of land in Tokyo plummeted. The following two decades weren’t actually “lost”. It just became easier and cheaper to live, and far more obviously necessary to plan.

Without a plan, life in cities becomes chaotic, prices surge, congestion rises and dissent grows to the point where parts of the state begin to calculate that it is in their interest to leave. Not planning for London to grow in a world that is ever more urbanised is planning to preserve a living museum, one with aspects of Dickensian-level inequality. Planning to allow almost anything the markets and overseas investors desire is planning for a Blade Runner-style future.

Between these two extremes lie many other possibilities. But if you were living in Scotland now would you trust the English elite to have the sense to consider them? 

Danny Dorling’s “All That Is Solid: the Great Housing Disaster” is published by Allen Lane (£20)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood