Allister Heath delivers the synapse-tingler this morning in the 'graph. The death of London. Of course one needs to remember what pre-war London was like to appreciate the possibilities - and understand the damage wrought by Patrick Abercrombie and the London County Council.
London was not just an agglomeration of villages but of little towns. Domestic service remained widespread and food was distributed through local shops and markets via the huge food wholesale markets at Billingsgate, Smithfield and Covent Garden. London's docks brought sugar and produce from around the globe. Fresh milk was either from the few dairies still with herds of cows kept stalled in the heart of the city but more often by train from dairies such as Lord Rayleigh's in Chelmsford, built adjacent to rail lines to allow rapid transport of milk.
Light industry was spread evenly throughout the city and small workshops, factories, warehouses and ateliers were scattered everywhere - even up to the walls of the Tower, where a dock connected the Empire to the canal network. After the Blitz, the Abercrombie plan changed it all. Industry was banished to the outskirts, new road networks and warehousing hubs replaced rail, people were to be housed in suburbia and the dense inner terraces were to be flattened (those that the Germans hadn't already flattened, that is) to make way for new concrete office blocks. It was to become a Soviet planned City. But the LCC's planned changes were continued into the 21st century by further phases of more organic change driven by economics and unconnected local planning preferences that had a cumulative effect -
A few years ago, Bridget Rosewell, an economist, revealed how the capital lost 1 million, mostly manufacturing, jobs on radial routes in the suburbs over three decades and created 1 million, mostly high-value-added services jobs in central London. Suburban factories and offices became homes. Economic activity became hyper-concentrated in the centre. This model was seen globally as a triumph of renewal. There were risks: it was contingent on staving off urban decay, avoiding terrorism, making sure taxes were not hiked, ongoing vast subsidies to public transport, continued globalisation, containing property prices – and yes, avoiding pandemics.We have a London that is dangerously unbalanced, seeded with the cankers of disorder in the ugly post-war Abercrombie public housing estates, already drowning the city in a welter of teenage blood. Only the city's wealth and massive levels of public service provision have kept a lid on things. But all that is about to change -
As to the downsides: the rest of the UK failed to pull off its own transition, becoming addicted to transfers from London; and the capital’s culture shifted corrosively, becoming the epicentre of Remainia, Corbynite attitudes and intolerant illiberalism.
The private sector, for its part, is facing gargantuan structural losses: the economics of offices and retail is predicated on mass commuting and tourism. The former won’t fully come back; the latter will take a year or two. The arts, luxury, fashion, transport, hospitality, restaurant and many service industries face decimation. It’s a full-on biotic crisis: London’s economic ecosystem is suffering an immense decline in diversity. Lower-paid jobs, in particular, are being culled; the population could fall, with tens of thousands returning to Europe.As Sadiq Khan will shortly learn, there is no more money. This first lockdown has busted the bank.
But what of the City, the square mile, now with an offshoot in Docklands? Well, the City has always been independent of the LCC, the GLC and now the GLA and thus stands a good chance of making decisions to its own benefit. The concatenation of related expertise will keep London's place in the financial world. There may be a retreat from Canary Wharf - those vast towers may empty, along with the thousands of service jobs emptying the bins and flipping burgers for the thousands of clerks as the clerks get their P45s in September. However, the square mile, with its own police force and local authority, will tough it out. Heath is bullish - allow the change, take the hit
Boris Johnson must not seek to prop up bankrupt central London investors. Instead, he must allow the market to work, and encourage Tory heartlands – suburbia, exurbia and smaller cities – to hoover up London refugees, workers who no longer need to commute daily.London saw house price rises of over 750% between 1995 and 2015. Anyone who hasn't already cashed-up will need to stick it out now - just batten down and wait a decade or two.