Since Londoners last went to the polls to elect a Mayor in 2012, the city has continued to polarise.
While bankers’ bonuses and foreign inflows of capital have kept the plushest bars and restaurants busy, during Boris Johnson’s tenure, London’s levels of inequality have risen, with latest figures suggesting 27 per cent of Londoners live in poverty.
The next mayor will preside over a truly global city – but whether it’s Sadiq Khan or Zac Goldsmith, bold action must be taken so that all Londoners can benefit from the city’s success and it doesn’t just become a playground for the super-rich, socially cleansed of the millions of ordinary workers who keep it running.
In recent years, my research on prosperity has taken me around the world – from Kenya to Thailand – but some of the most interesting findings have come from our own doorstep in East London. A research team from UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP), working closely with local citizen scientists, spent four months across three sites in Hackney Wick, East Village (the former Olympic athletes’ village) and Stratford, gathering experiences of what prosperity really means to local people.
These areas are in the shadow of the Olympic Park, Boris Johnson’s biggest legacy – and on the front line of London’s gentrification. What came to the fore were a range of shared sentiments: fears of being priced out, crushing house prices and escalating rents, fear of crime, deprivation and a lack of job opportunities.
In the ostensibly wealthy East Village, for instance, one resident told us: “If prosperity is living in a great place, having a fantastic school and great quality of life then I am prosperous. But it’s a struggle to hold on to this, to pay for it”.
That feeling of clinging on by the fingernails is a sentiment many Londoners will recognise.
While complaints about gentrification aren’t new, the phenomenon’s worsening impact was highlighted recently by the Runnymede Trust which pointed to the growing levels of overcrowding particularly among ethnic minorities.
This was an issue that came up in our research too. One Stratford resident told us about Victorian-style conditions in their local area: “I know some people are living in very difficult situations, with lots of people living in one house because they can’t afford to rent or buy. So maybe ten to fifteen people living in a three-bedroom house.”
Sadiq Khan has called the housing crisis the single biggest barrier to prosperity, growth and fairness facing Londoners today”. That may be true, but we need to stop looking at single issues and take a broader view of the factors that create – and undermine – prosperity.
While we can look at broad indicators such as personal wealth, housing prices or unemployment, there is currently no way of measuring people’s true prosperity – a nuanced and subjective concept that’s very personal.
An urgent priority for the next Mayor should be to commission a report on the whole of London so we can understand the issues in more detail. This shouldn’t just be a 21st-century version of Charles Booth’s famous map of red and blue streets, however. It needs to talk directly to Londoners about their experiences of being part of today’s capital – and ‘crowdsource’ some suggested solutions.
At the IGP, we’ve developed a model of 17 indicators for measuring prosperity covering social, economic, cultural and political life, which are often viewed in isolation. Our measures include the things that people really value in their lives, such as their sense of community or having the quality time to pursue their aspirations.
One area that this extends to is the natural environment and how we interact with it. Since air quality, water, waste and climate change all come under the mayor’s remit, green issues have been high on the agenda in this election; Khan has outlined his plans to make London “a zero-carbon city”, while Goldsmith has pledged to create 200 new parks for London.
But I’d suggest that a more effective policy for a prosperous London would be to establish it as a National Park City, an idea that’s been gaining traction in recent years.
This plan recognises that Greater London already has lots of green space – it makes up almost 50% of the land area – that isn’t used effectively. But it goes deeper than that: a national park, just like Dartmoor or the Lake District, is also about preserving a unique social and economic environment as well as a natural one.
London in 2016 risks losing much of what makes it such a diverse, vital and multi-layered place to the sterilising forces of polarised wealth and misguided policy.
Although the political spotlight has shone on the EU Referendum so far this year, the Mayoral race still holds great significance for London’s 8.6 million residents.
We need the next Mayor to make a bold start to his tenure by doing what he can within the powers available to make a real positive difference to the prosperity of London, focused on the real lives of Londoners.
Professor Henrietta Moore is Director of UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity