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Tale of a city: Northern lights

Stuart Marconie is tired of all the fuss devoted to a southern town.

A few weeks ago, I was making my way back to the Midlands from the Latitude Festival in Suffolk by public transport. This being England, though Birmingham and Southwold are on roughly the same latitude, the trip entailed a massive southerly detour of several hundred miles via Liverpool Street, the District Line and Euston. As I was wandering through the concourse, my day got appreciably worse when I was greeted with the sight and sound of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, scoldingly reminding us that the Olympics were upon us and that we should all be planning our daily movements carefully and sensibly. He stopped short of asking if our journey was absolutely necessary but the Second World War resonance was there. Up to a point, anyway. It was a kind of life-during-wartime address but from Bagpuss rather than Winston Churchill.

What struck me more than anything else was how little I had in common with “my” capital city, how utterly apart from it I felt. I felt a much stronger kinship with the Milanese and the Florentine sipping their caffè corretto, the Bostonian at the coffee counter, the Bilbaoan with his churros, all watching the TV in the corner of the bar, shaking their head and chuckling at Boris and G4S and the triteness of it all.

I know many people who do not exactly want the Olympics to fail but would like to see London get taken down a peg or two. This is petty, insular and reeks of Schadenfreude but, hey, London started it. Let me say first that sometimes I love London. I still think that Wordsworth was just plain wrong to say that “earth has not anything to show more fair” than the view from Westminster Bridge (he lived in the Lake District, for God’s sake) but I take his point. The other night, as I walked across the river from the Poetry Parnassus event on the South Bank, I was thrilled by the lights of the West End and the buzz of the Saturday night around me. It had been a great event, too, organised by one of our finest poets, Simon Armitage. He lives in Huddersfield.

Huddersfield has been at the centre of poetic life in England for some time, thanks to Simon, Peter Sansom’s Poetry Business and the lodestone of Ted Hughes. It also brings musicians from all over the world to its Contemporary Music Festival each year, the greatest showcase for avant-garde and experimental music in the world. Yet I know that the only time I will ever hear the town mentioned in the media is in some passing, slighting reference in a dire “satire” show when they want a synonym for provincial gormlessness.

Busted flush

My heart has noticeably hardened against London this past year and for reasons that are not entirely that grand old city’s fault. You may have noticed that the BBC has moved some of its operations to a new, state-of-the-art complex by the Ship Canal in Salford. I work there every day and I love it. I love the light and the water, the facilities, the campus-like feel of the place. MediaCityUK (the name is the worst thing about it) has also given some of our more tiresome columnists an easy, reliable subject in those weeks when they can’t get away with yet another sneering piece about restaurant service or caravans. Here’s the very worst from one Giles Coren:

A few weeks ago a mate of mine got home to London two hours late because someone was shot dead literally outside the door of his studio. And so I am torn between love and duty, as I was last week when, in order to talk about my book on BBC Breakfast, I had to go up the night before . . . because there are no trains early enough from London to travel there on the day . . . So I was forging a path into the wild (north) west. Opening a trail. One man against the wilderness.

Just what is it that makes this so nauseating? Is it the whingeing about trains and scaremongering about shootings? Or is it the unctuous metropolitan bellyaching? Whatever, I think any reasonable person would think the whole MediaCityUK site a bargain even if its sole purpose were to screw up Coren’s day.

Though they are nothing like this odious about it, my London friends often used to tell me how if they left London for the “provinces” they’d miss the culture. In the past week or so, I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine and hung out at an early-evening poetry session in Manchester hosted by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy (who lives in Chorlton), heard a lunch - time recital of modern European chamber music at the Royal Northern College of Music, watched Maxine Peake in Miss Julie at the Royal Exchange and seen an anniversary screening of A Taste of Honey at the Cornerhouse, where a cast member, Murray Melvin, spoke warmly of Joan Littlewood and old-fashioned Marxism. During my working week in Manchester (and, by extension, in Newcastle, Birmingham and Leeds), I spend my evenings at concerts, gigs, exhibitions, readings, talks, walks, sporting events and lectures, or just hanging out in great bars and restaurants, while I suspect most of my London friends are slumped slack-jawed on the sofa in front of Wallander with a plate of M&S lasagne, having spent two hours getting from the office to an overpriced flat in Lewisham. The myth has been busted. You’re not at the Almeida or the Cottesloe. You’re not at a glitch techno juice bar in Shoreditch. You’re not discussing art in a Dean Street pub over oysters and gin. You’re not living like Francis Bacon. You’re not even living like Richard Bacon. The game is up.

When you are tired of London, you are tired of life, said Dr Johnson, a Lichfield lad who moved south for the work. Well, maybe not, Sam. You may just be tired of its banality, its bullying sense of entitlement (we couldn’t give a toss about Television Centre or Routemaster buses, actually), the way it squats on our lives like Larkin’s toad. Another great poet – from Coventry, by way of Hull. No, when you’re tired of London, you are probably just tired of London.

Stuart Maconie’s “Freak Zone” is on BBC 6 Music (Sundays, 8pm)

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.