The Centre of Power
London is widely acknowledged by the pundits as being the political and economic centre of the UK. So much so that every now and then (such as in today’s Evening Standard), some journalist will write a Modest Proposal style piece suggesting that London secede from the UK. At least, I hope he is writing in jest. It is after all hard to tell good parody from extremism when written well.
But London is choking on its ‘success’. The transport system cannot cope. Heathrow airport is overloaded, and talks of whether to expand it or build a new one (and where?) are delaying a solution interminably. The transport links from Heathrow to London proper are just as crowded. The roads and commuter rail system is so heavily burdened that a boat service had to be set up (not a bad idea in itself on aesthetic grounds if nothing else, but that’s not the reason it happened). Train stations, such as London Bridge, routinely experience construction projects lasting years (the current scheme is expected to finish in 2018).
Even the Boris bike system is expected to shrink back in the near future, due to budget cuts. And London’s roads are so congested that local councils have resorted to draconian traffic misdemeanour fines to keep the traffic moving. Most new housing doesn’t even come with an option on eventually getting an assigned street parking space from the council.
But never mind that, because the housing market in London has never been so buoyant! Right? Sorry, this isn’t really true either. London’s housing market is in a classic bubble. The luxury upper end of the market is being bought up by foreign investors, who see a London house in the same way they see bars of gold bullion – it’s an investment, a secure place to put money. But not something to actually be used or lived in. They generate rather modest amounts of tax income, relative to what multiple plots of affordable housing in the same space would generate, and because no one lives in them, they generate no jobs, and the owners spend no money on the local economy. In short, the extreme luxury housing market is creating localised economic holes inside London that will be slow to repair once the bubble bursts. And at the lower end of the market, even “affordable” one-bedroom shared ownership properties are advertised with a caveat that you must be earning, for example, over £30,000 a year just to be considered as a tenant in a ‘studio’ bedsit. That’s the top 23%, for those who were wondering. ‘Affordable’ housing is not for the poor. It’s not for the average earner. It’s not even for the average earner by London’s local bubble standard (£27,800 as of 2007).
How do we fix it? It’s simple really. So simple I’d be astonished no one in power hadn’t already suggested it, if I didn’t suspect that the lobbyists have a vested interest in keeping everything in London.
London should not be the only centre.
There are a number of “second tier” cities across Britain that could be developed as centres to rival London, New York, and Singapore. Any one of these (I’d suggest Birmingham or Manchester as the first and second to receive such development, city communities and councils willing). Let’s consider Birmingham. It is in a very good position geographically to allow transport to the rest of the UK. It has an airport, which has room for expansion, and greenfield sites close enough to be developed into a second airport if needed. It has a ready population of workers available. It would make a logical choice even for a devolved ‘English’ parliament. As a business centre, it lacks only the political will to allow it to develop and be promoted. With the completion of the HS2 rail link, it will even have good transport with the original UK centre.
This will allow the UK economy to grow further. Why continue choking the goose that lays the golden egg, when we can have two unchoked geese laying golden eggs?
What’s not to like?
- Two-speed Britain as London soars away from the rest (guardian.co.uk)
- Simon Jenkins: London should quit the EU and ditch the UK too (standard.co.uk)