Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Yes, London is great. But this can't go on.

Last night I watched the BBC programme Mind the gap: London vs the rest. This was part one and I'm itching to see part two.

Part one came across mostly as an international sales video, putting a positive spin on the over-crowding and barely mentioning the poverty that exists in the capital, or the poor living conditions, cut-throat culture, short-termism and any number of other negatives.

Perhaps part two will be more sensible. Maybe it will pose the issue of how long this can last and ask the following questions:

1) Where will people live? Already people on good salaries can't afford to buy homes or even rent within a reasonable commute of their place of work.
2) What about health? The stress, the daily crush onto public transport, the air quality, the hours spent in offices, underground or in carriages is not good for mental or physical health. Trying to cram in exercise to busy schedules exacerbates and is exacerbated by points 1) and 2).
3) What about the environment? The air quality around London is already a major concern. Water is also a worry. Over-crowding of this level is not compatible with green values, particularly when profit is the sole reason for London's growth and success: companies and corporations seeking to maximise profit will not invest in green solutions.
4) How do we expect low-paid workers to exist there? The cleaners, nurses, care workers, shop assistants etc need to be able to live close enough to serve the city's ever-growing population. But if well paid people struggle to afford it and traditional lower-end estates are being torn down and replaced with high-end penthouses and super-modern living spaces for overseas investors, what chance have those on low incomes got?
5) What about children? People already work long hours to compete and impress - or just to survive. For many people, the commute to an area they can afford to live means they're spending hardly any time with their children. Perhaps the rest of the UK will be the breeders and send their children to board at corporate training centres just outside the M25 where they will compete for graduate jobs. Although surely the "excellence" and "talent" drain to London will end up meaning that those not already in London will not be of the appropriate quality to result in good enough off-spring to keep London great? (I'm being facetious of course but the question needs answering).

Now one glaring omission from all of this - is 'the rest'. Perhaps the second part will focus on all of the areas outside of London that are ignored.

London receives UK tax payers' money to fund the sort of infrastructure projects that the rest can only dream of. Meanwhile, other regions have high unemployment and even if they had many opportunities, people from nearby towns would struggle to get there because of the lack of investment in public transport. The government and Boris Johnson claim that the whole UK benefits from London's success. But how? In what way are people in other regions benefiting from being ignored? How much of that profit finds its way beyond the M25 or the ever-expanding commuter belt? We can be sure of one thing: the rest have not recouped the money ploughed into saving those oh-so-precious banks. Will we ever? I'd like that answered before I'd be willing to consider the benefit the rest of the UK gets from being London PLC.

The whole UK bailed out the banks because they had screwed up on a catastrophic scale. The same assistance was never even considered for the manufacturing industry, which apparently wasn't worth saving. I can understand the idea that cheaper labour overseas meant we could no longer compete but that doesn't explain the motor industry in Germany. How can BMW, Audi and Volkswagen do it in what is a more affluent nation than our own? The British motor industry went into a rapid decline and the government cut it loose. What if we'd done that to the banks? At least the decline of the motor industry - unlike the cock-up that lead to the financial crisis - wasn't likely to cause a massive recession that affected everyone living in the UK (and of course when it did collapse, those responsible would have felt it too - unlike in our financial sector).

I realise some of my arguments may be over-simplified. But this programme ignored or glossed-over the most pressing questions. When will the realisation hit that tipping point is either just around the corner or has already arrived? And when will people realise that London will suffer too when the rest of the country is left ill-equipped to ease the strain?

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