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Is the capital losing its appeal?

What’s happened to London?

Hundreds of thousands have left during the pandemic, many never to return. Having discovered I can earn my living without getting on the Tube, “I am, along with half of the middle-aged people in London, thinking of moving out,” says Emma Duncan in The Times. “I am sniffing out greener pastures after 35 years in the Big Smoke.” Nor is it just middle-aged Brits hoofing it: one study estimates 700,000 foreign-born residents have left since the start of the pandemic.

What’s the effect on the housing market?

It’s taken the heat out of it, and out of the rental market, too. Rents have fallen by 10% year on year, says Zoopla’s Richard Donell, while in the rest of Britain they’ve risen by 2.5%. Yet, despite the pandemic, London remains hugely popular.

Last month, the Boston Consulting Group published the results of research for which 209,000 people in 190 countries were asked where they would most like to live and work: London came top (as it did in similar surveys carried out in 2014 and 2018). And that’s part of an enduring trend. London has long been one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world – in the 2011 census, just 45% of Londoners were “white British”.

Amsterdam has swiped some of London’s finance work, becoming “Europe’s top share trading hub”. But a major survey recently declared London to be the world’s number two financial centre, a whisker behind New York (Amsterdam came 28th). It helps that London is the home of the world’s lingua franca, English – one of the reasons, when ranking global cities, the Financial Times’s Janan Ganesh puts London and New York in a “league of two”.

Would New York agree?

The New York Times certainly wouldn’t, says former Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker. Its intrepid reporters are constantly “going deep inside the bowels” of the post-Brexit “hellhole” they expect Britain to be, “in search of tales of human misery and Pulitzer Prizes”. London in particular, they believe, is in “precipitous decline”.

Are they right?

New York and London have always been like rival siblings. “But I am here to tell you, having lived for the last decade on this side of the Atlantic, that New York is losing the race,” wrote Baker in 2019. Its public infrastructure is crumbling, with its subway affected by “rotting stations … and endless delays”. Only four new subway stations have been built since 2000, while London has opened a dozen new or remodelled Tube stations in the same period. And that’s to say nothing of New York’s sky-high property taxes, the bloated bureaucracy and a murder rate that’s twice London’s, despite both cities being about the same size.

But isn’t London heading in the same direction?

That’s the problem. New York’s infrastructure may be in a chronic state, but London’s is going downhill, too: its bridges “are – literally – falling down”, says Madeline Grant in The Daily Telegraph. Transport for London’s finances are “in tatters”, the streets are gridlocked. “Navigating the maze of one-way streets, bike lanes and interminable roadworks these days feels like an epic quest.”

Could it get worse?

Easily, if people don’t return to the capital in big enough numbers. The Telegraph’s Allister Heath calculates that it would only take a 10% permanent decline in commuter trips to bankrupt London’s transport system, “forcing higher taxes and user fees, further discouraging demand”.

Whats the government doing?

Not nearly enough, say its critics. The Tories are neglecting the capital in their efforts to shore up support in northern, Red Wall seats, and Tory commentators such as Grant accuse the government of simply handing London over to a “high tax, anti-business politician” (the mayor, Sadiq Khan). Politically, this may seem sensible. Much of Jeremy Corbyn’s support came from London and it was the one area in Britain “where blue seats turned red” in 2019. But it’s also short-sighted.

Why does it matter?

Together, London and the southeast are the cash cow that funds all British public spending – London’s West End alone accounts for about 4% of British GDP. So the government has plenty to gain from championing, for example, its artistic centres and financial industry. “Standing up for luvvie actors or City bigwigs may not play well in Bolsover or Blyth Valley, but these are two areas of obvious British exceptionalism,” says Grant. “London is simply too important to be abandoned to the forces of decline.”

Is London really doomed to decline?

It has survived all kinds of disasters before, as Grant says – Boadicea and the Iceni, Viking raids, the Great Fire, the Blitz. Each time, “it has risen phoenix-like from the ashes”. Maybe it will again: if the heat has gone out of the property market, that’s no bad thing. Whether or not London declines, though, it will undoubtedly change. “It will become younger, cheaper and poorer,” says Duncan. “Working from home relieves pressure on office space and liberates well-off middle-aged folk who want to head to the suburbs … Whether the suburbs and the countryside want us, of course, is another matter.”

🏙️ Like so much else, London as we know it now is really a Victorian invention. The Victorians built many of its famous landmarks. Trafalgar Square, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben had all begun to take shape by the mid-1800s. King’s Cross, Waterloo, Euston and Paddington train stations were all built by the Victorians – this was the golden age of steam, after all – and they even made a start on the Underground. It would be easier to list iconic London landmarks that they didn’t build (like the Tower of London).

🏙️ There was a huge population surge in the 19th century, thanks to the heroic efforts of an engineer called Joseph Bazalgette. He was responsible for the construction of 1,300 miles of tunnels and pipes to divert the city’s sewage away from the city. Bazalgette’s sewers were such a triumph we still use them today. And the deaths they prevented (from cholera and the like) meant that the capital’s population of a scant one million Georgians in 1800 became, a century later, six million Victorians.