I have, for reasons explained in the New Statesman, just spent two months in Venice. It was charming and whimsical, soothing and a balm to the soul. It is, after all, one of the most beautiful places on earth. Still, about five weeks in I was hit by a powerful wave of homesickness.
I’d been enjoying the pasta and the canals and the churches but, really, none of it compared to London, which I believe to be the best city in the world. I am not married but suspect that is what a successful long-term relationship looks like: there are moments when you feel overwhelmed by your own luck. That love can come from a person or a city; there are moments when I feel overwhelmingly lucky that I get to call myself a Londoner.
It is a love that is mostly unconditional, which is good because London keeps getting worse. I was only gone for two months and yet have noticed price rises in several of my usual haunts. I recently went on a website that offers data about air pollution and found that I live in one of the single most polluted parts of the country. I idly looked at flats in my neighbourhood, out of curiosity, and found that, if I were to move tomorrow, I would need to pay at least £300 more a month to stay where I am. Several of my favourite bars and restaurants have closed this year. I could go on.
Of course, London is not the only place that has suffered from the pandemic and Londoners are not the only people bearing the brunt of the cost-of-living crisis. Many of our problems are shared, national problems — but not all of them. It always has been and probably always will be expensive to live here (it is a capital city after all) but it is becoming impossible for many.
According to the economics consultancy WPI’s London’s Poverty Profile, published in 2020, 22 per cent of children in London live in overcrowded accommodation, compared with 11 per cent nationally. The number of food bank parcels delivered by the Trussell Trust rose by 128 per cent between 2019 and 2020, compared with 56 per cent in the rest of England. On average, households in London spend 18 per cent of their net income on meeting housing costs, compared with 11 per cent in the rest of the country.
Even internal comparisons are dire. Seventy six per cent of children in poverty in London were in working families in 2020, up from 52 per cent in 2010. London keeps getting worse. It is gradually becoming unlivable for millions of people on low wages, and even the luckier among us are hardly having a ball. Travelling is expensive; going out for drinks or to restaurants is expensive; going out to the cinema or the theatre is expensive. Merely living under a roof is expensive.
I once loved London as a student and a recent graduate because it was possible to live a cheap and cheerful life here. Sure, you weren’t drinking the finest wines and eating the finest dinners, but that was all right. You could rent half a shoebox in a block of flats where nothing really worked, but you were close enough to zone 1 that it didn’t really matter. The city felt alive, there was always something to do, and as long as you didn’t mind taking buses across town the place was yours. I do not think that is the case anymore. I worry about the penniless 19-year-olds trying to squeeze as much fun out of the capital as they can. How much joy can be squeezed out of it today? I earn over twice as much as I did in those days and still, I struggle.
What stings is that few people seem to care. The results of the local elections came out yesterday and, somehow, Labour winning three of our boroughs for the first time in decades was spun as neutral if not bad news for them. We are apparently so hated that being popular with us means becoming less popular with everyone else, or so we were told. The London victories were seen as “symbolic”, as though we are not real voters with real issues, like everyone else. It was “a PR disaster for the Tories”, but nothing more.
Of course, none of this should be surprising. In January, a poll conducted by the think tank More in Common found that three in five Britons would like to see London and the south-east “become less wealthy and prosperous” to “reduce inequality between different regions of the UK”. It doesn’t matter that boroughs such as Hackney and Barking & Dagenham are among the most deprived in England. We are London and so we must be a city of bankers, barons and oligarchs, burning £50 notes to keep our mansions warm as everyone else freezes.
If we are to have anything nice, it cannot be seen as a national pride, and a sign that the country is home to one of the greatest global capitals. London is not allowed to be poor and unequal but it is not allowed to be happy with itself either; if it brags about its culture and attractions it is bashed as elitist and out of touch by both the left and the right. Londoners cannot complain about how tough it can be to live here because it is assumed that they have it better than everyone else. They cannot be proud of their home because that would imply that they think of themselves as better than everyone else.
Britain, in 2022, does not know what it wants from London. It does not know what it wants from us Londoners. It is a shame; levelling up does not have to be a zero-sum game, and everyone would lose out if London lost its shine. I am proud to live in the city I love, but I worry it is dying, and that no one really cares.