Parliament may be one week into its summer recess, but the City of Westminster is still buzzing. Whitehall and Downing Street continue administering government policy and churning out one press release after another, the Royal Courts of Justice and Supreme Court proceed with handling the highest cases of the land, and Buckingham Palace remains thriving, especially since its latest royal arrival. Westminster enables the Queen, the Prime Minister and almost the entire British elite to function within the vicinity of one London borough. All sounds rather splendid. Except it isn’t. If ever there was a prize for the London borough that could closest resemble a microcosmic north-south social divide, my hometown Westminster would win all day long.
While south Westminster consists of some of the UK’s most important and iconic landmarks, north Westminster (which consists roughly of all tube stations on the Bakerloo Line between Paddington and Queen’s Park) is a mere shadow, devoid of any such institutional or touristic significance. Instead it has come to be known as a place rife with child poverty, youth unemployment and gang-related crime. As someone who lives and has grown up in the north of the borough, the affluence and prosperity of the south has always felt a world away – never the stone’s throw away it actually is.
When telling people I went to school in Westminster, they often reply, “What, you mean Westminster School?” I wish. The differences between Westminster School and schools in Westminster are unfortunately far greater than syntax. In Westminster state schools, 40 per cent of students are entitled to free schools meals, while the fees to send your child to board at Westminster School is £10,830 per term. That is to say, the entire annual household income of many parents living in the borough would not be enough to send one of their children to Westminster School for just one year.
While their private school counterparts are getting places at Oxbridge at the highest rate of any school in the UK, Westminster state schoolers are getting their Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) abolished and their university fees trebled. Although the fee rise affects everybody, it’s poorer students who are reconsidering their university applications. For young people who are used to free school meals and (were used to) EMA, £27,000 of debt is an immense burden. Nick Clegg (appropriately, an alumnus of Westminster School) can try to justify the fee rise using as many jargon-filled caveats about repayment rates as he likes, but the fact remains: £9k a year is much higher than £3k a year. And it is those headline facts and figures that resonate with deprived 17 and 18 year olds in north Westminster, not minute specifics involving repayment. Such financial thought processes are rather less overwhelming for Clegg’s old friends south of the borough, who have been paying fees all their lives.
The strife from austerity in the City of Westminster is by no means restricted only to young people. Westminster City Council revealed earlier this year that it would be cutting its entire £350m arts budget by 2015. St James’ Library was closed in 2011, while Westminster Adult Education Services announced it would be selling off its site on Amberley Road, where 12,000 adults currently study. Perhaps worst of all, north Westminster’s “Jubilee Sports Centre” – where generations learned to swim and play badminton, and which is used for multi-functional purposes such as Muslim Friday prayers – is also set for closure. It is surely ironic that in the year that south Westminster was so lavishly hosting the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, we in the north were being told that our Jubilee Sports Centre’s days were numbered. Quite some Olympic legacy.
With austerity comes a lack of both occupation (unemployment) and preoccupation (nothing to kill time). And with that, north Westminster’s deep-rooted problem with gang culture (something which London Mayor Boris Johnson admits) intensifies. The territorial rivalry between gangs “SK” (South Kilburn) and “Mozart” (on the border of Queen’s Park and Harrow Road) has resulted in a 13-year-old boy being kidnapped and pistol-whipped with a handgun, and three teenage girls being shot in a drive by, among countless other distressing incidents.
Most other incidents don’t make it into the headlines. Regarding my own experience, despite steering clear of “SK”, “Mozart” and all things gang related, I have been held at knifepoint on no less than three occasions – once when I was as young as twelve years old. All three incidents happened not far from my own home in Maida Vale and were instigated by large groups late at night seeking valuables from which to make quick sales. A petty crime, yet knives (which, if local rumours and stories were anything to go by, gang members would certainly not be afraid to use) were deemed necessary. Such episodes are something I’ve had to concede is part and parcel with Westminster life. I doubt however, that it’s part and parcel with most outsiders’ conception of Westminster life.
The word Westminster can mean a lot of things to whom it may concern: a general term for UK Parliament, a constitutional framework of governance, or indeed one of the most well to do areas in the country. Yet there is another side to Westminster that exists, and its connotations are rather bleaker. If the influential folks south of the borough continue piling on their proposed programmes of austerity and hardship, that bleakness will only continue and the microcosmic divide between north and south will unashamedly deepen.