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Editor’s blog – Is booming London dying a slow and painful cultural death?

By Dean Carroll

London is booming. Cranes dominate the skyline. New high-rise towers spring up like the fastest growing trees you have ever seen. Every day, hundreds – if not thousands – more commuters bump their way through packed Tube carriages eager to get to work or play.

On the surface, the United Kingdom’s domineering capital city looks to be in rude health. Scratch beneath the thin veneer though and the shine disappears. What emerges is a beast of our own making, a logical extension of the untrammelled globalisation narrative we all want to live by in this interconnected technological age.

While native Londoners contemplate spending the majority of their salaries on rent – or alternatively, for the lucky ones, buying an over-inflated abode – whole developments sit empty. These ghost-town neighbourhoods have been sold exclusively to foreign investors, who certainly have no intention of letting the properties let alone living in them.

We have all read the stories of derelict mansions on billionaire’s row where those looking for an easy buck can simply leave homes to rot but still make millions from the bubble. It is simply part and parcel of the ‘buy-to-leave’ phenomenon sweeping through London at great pace, spreading into previously unfashionable areas and making nervous wrecks of even the best-paid professionals.

In contrast, at the other end of society huge social housing developments face compulsory purchase orders. The result: diversity suffers as council tenants are moved to outer districts to make way for yet another enclave of absent affluence. But using Paris as a best-practice template might not be the best idea given the polarisation and riots that followed the French strategy.

On the water too, nobody is safe from the tide of oligarchy intent on hollowing out a once-great centre of art and culture. Houseboat owners in Chelsea have been given notice in order that Russian mega-yachts have a place to dock. Is the River Thames the next hot spot? It would seem so. Logic suggests that trickle-down economics will soon mean even the grimiest areas become unaffordable for those actually inhabiting the ‘big smoke’. We are all global capitalists now. The deal is done. The ink is already dry. And London Mayor Boris Johnson looks determined to remain silent on the issue.

Elsewhere, a lone local authority is suggesting it will regulate these the worst excesses of the moneyed elite if the government is unwilling to step in; as most definitely is the case despite UK Chancellor George Osborne’s tinkering at the edges. We are not talking higher property taxes or rent controls. No, Islington Council could impose fines of £60,000 on owners leaving properties vacant throughout the year – a ‘discussion paper’ promises. Whether this bold rhetoric ever becomes a reality remains to be seen. Given the slow pace of decision-making at town halls, we may well be past the point of no return by the time 10 committees have given the radical plan a green light.

Meanwhile, the cultural intelligentsia ranging from esoteric comedian Stewart Lee to Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis have bemoaned the loss of London’s soul – the very thing that made it great. If artists cannot afford to work and live in the city then the risk is that all you are left with is tourist traps, empty oligarch palaces and a legacy middle class lucky enough to have bought before the boom – goes the argument. If the 32 boroughs become simply mechanisms by which to satisfy the demand for fine dining and wine bars then where will tomorrow’s musicians, writers, comedians and film-makers find creative space – ask good-taste luminaries such as Lee and Curtis.

Perhaps, in the ‘fintech’ epoch, we no longer need them anyway. Just maybe Candy Crush is all people require as an immersive life experience. If that is the case then society is, indeed, doomed. Let us hope change is in the air soon and some sort of rebalancing occurs (I am not calling for a socialist revolution here comrades but rather something much more nuanced – for example, effective public policy beyond elegant words in Islington). If not, we may have to utter the immortal words: “Would the last real person to leave London please turn out the lights?”

Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review. Follow him on Twitter @poljourno and follow Policy Review @Policyrev

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