London is diverse, dynamic and rich. It is also unequal, expensive and congested—and getting fuller every year. Can London's socialist mayor preside over a hyper-capitalist city-state while keeping it a decent place to live for most citizens?by Simon Parker / April 29, 2007 / Leave a comment
At the top of the Greater London Authority’s headlamp-like headquarters on the south bank of the Thames, Ken Livingstone’s office takes in a panorama from the edge of the City of London, over Tower Bridge and down the river towards Canary Wharf. A hubristic man might feel he was in London’s cockpit, surrounded by the levers of power.
Actually, the GLA has rather few levers compared to comparable big city authorities. And it is just such minimal governance, both here in City Hall and Westminster, that is said to be one reason for London’s renaissance. The management consultants McKinsey recently said that Britain’s relaxed approach to immigration and regulation was making London the best place for financial business in the world. In the next few years, the city could regain its historical role as the world’s financial capital, pushing a traumatised, post-9/11 New York into second place.
Since becoming mayor seven years ago, Livingstone has watched from his cockpit as the glass towers of high finance—including the iconic gherkin— have sprung up across the river. And whoever is sitting in the mayor’s office in ten years’ time will be watching a new line of skyscrapers wind across east London’s Lea valley and down towards Canary Wharf. The 2012 Olympic games will have spurred regeneration in the east, including a new era of high-density housing for the 800,000 extra people who will be living in the capital by then (taking its population from today’s 7.5m to 8.3m). The streets around the GLA building will have few cars on them—the congestion charge will have expanded its reach and cost, taking in most of inner London—and private gardens and cars will increasingly be the preserve of the rich. London’s 32 boroughs may have been reinvented as five gigantic wedges, dedicated to shuttling people into and out of the centre.
London’s dynamism is not without costs and victims—including, arguably, most of the rest of Britain. And to many people, especially those on moderate incomes, life in the capital often feels like being trapped in a spiral of growth. But London’s status as a global city—a city of a different order to Paris, Berlin or Rome—is no longer just a passing fad. Since the 1960s, American news magazines have had a taste for periodic “swinging London” features, giving the city a brief glow of self-importance. The latest round of London “boosterism” has, by contrast,…