Ben Judah: Don't be fooled by the London mirage

Little by little, western states from Great Britain to the United States have lost some of their power to seduce. National trumpeting sounds a little false; government myth-making machines are out of tune. But not so for cities.
Real hardship lurks behind the glamour of the city. Picture: iStock/GettyReal hardship lurks behind the glamour of the city. Picture: iStock/Getty
Real hardship lurks behind the glamour of the city. Picture: iStock/Getty

The American Dream has frayed, but not the dream of New York. To declare your love of France might raise yawns (or sneers), but never your love of Paris. Great Britain is, in Scotland, an ailing brand. Ailing because the young snigger about it, and don’t respect it, like a Granny’s old favourite. But not London.

London still grips the Scottish imagination. Alex Salmond spoke for many Scots, not to mention English northerners, when he attacked London as an all-powerful “dark star of the economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy”. But millions more would turn Salmond’s words upside down. London’s star is not dark and malevolent but the dream city where you can make it. Why does the myth of London hold whilst Westminster is so loathed?

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Cities escape scrutiny in the way states don’t. London, seen from Scotland, is a city of million-pound houses with the poverty edited out. According to the Centre for London, over 28 per cent of Londoners are classified as poor. The city has a higher child poverty rate – 37 per cent – than Glasgow. The capital has the richest but also some of the poorest communities in Britain. Half of the 20 areas in the country with the lowest rates of employment are in London. Two of the 10 most deprived boroughs in England are in London. These figures might have come from a soap opera myth of the North – but Ilford, Beckton, Barking and Edmonton are as poor as any old pit town. In 12 of the 33 boroughs in London, the poverty rate doubled from 1980 to 2010.

Scotland often forgets London’s poverty, because it is immigrant poverty. Drive round the A406, the scruffy ring road that separates the inner London of all the TV series and the outer London so rarely filmed, and you will see 50 to 100 Eastern European labourers touting for work outside hangar-sized hardware stores. Insurance? Minimum wage? Forget it. Their wages are what they can haggle for, like 1930s dockers on the Clyde. By night, most of these men will sleep in cramped dosshouses.

Reporting undercover as a migrant in these dosshouses, I found mainly crushed dreams. A Romanian welder, struggling to find work told me again he should never have come; a Romanian labourer, cooped up in his bunk under a moulding ceiling, told me the life he 
had found in London felt 
like prison. They felt deceived by TV.

We in Britain are a little deceived by TV too. According to the sociologist Danny Dorling, the median Londoner is not much better off than the median Briton. London is remorselessly turning from a city of owners, to one of renters. Since 1996, average house prices have risen an extraordinary 281 per cent across the UK. In London, the figure is 501 per cent. By 2025 only 40 per cent of Londoners will be homeowners, down from 60 per cent in 1999, according to consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers. This is pricing out a generation from what is considered “middle class” – ie owning your own home. Just 26 per cent of Londoners currently aged 20-39 might own their homes in 2025.

London’s coveted property is crushing its middle class. Since 1980 the number of middle-income households has decreased by more than 43 per cent, whilst the number of rich and poor households has increased by 80 per cent. But British professionals have to dream about London. In 2013, a full 45 per cent of advertised graduate jobs were in the capital and since 2010 a full 79 per cent of private sector jobs created were there.

Advertisers promise that where London leads, Britain follows. So is London’s sociology a glimpse of Britain’s future? Demographically, it certainly is. By 2050 over 30 per cent of the British population will be non-white and over 40 per cent non-white British – almost at the level of London’s kaleidoscope today. But whether Scottish cities follow London backwards into a world of landlords, touting kerbside labourers and struggling renters – is a political choice.

Ben Judah is the author of This Is London (Picador, £18.99)