In this piece from Journal 469 (Spring/Summer 2016) Rupa Huq MP asks whether 21st century London is a brave new world or the same as it ever was.
Samuel Johnson declared: "When one is tired of London, one is tired of life." That was in 1777, but there is logic to the sentiment today. The nation’s capital is certainly a giddying city, a kaleidoscope of cultures where only a minority of London-dwellers were born Londoners, but nobody minds. What people value and cherish about this megacity is that it is steeped in history, yet rather than being a cobweb-infested thing, alongside the old it exhibits architectural dynamism and social diversity. These are constantly in flux: from Huguenots to Somalis via Eastern Europeans of different waves and the Windrush generation who made it from Tilbury to Notting Hill, to South Asians in the east (Bangladeshi Tower Hamlets), and Southall with its Sikh community in the west.
Our capital is awesome in the true sense of the word: something to marvel at and be in awe of. London’s sheer scale and pace of life is unparalleled. It's a densely populated urban sprawl where all human life is there to be experienced. The 33 boroughs make up a patchwork radiating outwards from the City, Square Mile and Westminster where Parliament lies, to the suburbs that encircle the inner city neighbourhoods hugging the centre.
London has undergone rapid transformation since 1777; in both physical landscape and social makeup. Once there were docks bringing in produce from all over the empire. On their site now are the gleaming towers of Canary Wharf, where during the week City workers toil all hours before letting rip at weekends, enjoying the maxim “work hard, play hard".
London’s economy is ripe for rebalancing and reinvention after the financial crash. As a sociology undergraduate in the early 1990s, I remember being taught about the end of the old industrial base, with manufacturing to be superseded by a burgeoning service sector. But this has taken on hi-tech, mobile qualities not then foreseen. For example, Japanese robots assemble Honda cars at Swindon, once a sleepy west-country town.
The strict work/commute/office demarcations that gave rise to our suburbs as, literally, “dormitory towns” (from the French verb dormir), where people slept in pleasant surroundings with a hint of town and country combined, that were affordable for those on modest incomes (famously Pooter, the clerk in The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith), are in danger of dissolving, as more people work from home, helped by advanced technology. But wifi and smart phones mean that people are never out of the office. In 2011, the Blackberry riots hit the London of districts Croydon, Tottenham and Ealing. In earlier riots in my lifetime, such as Brixton and Southall in 1981, you’d have had to put two-pence pieces in a phone box to coordinate such flashmob-style mass lootings.
My own relationship with my suburban hometown of Ealing is one that dates back more than 40 years and has taken on new significance since May when I was elected MP for the constituency of Ealing Central and Acton. I was born in 1972 at Queen Charlotte’s hospital.
My dad was recruited to the UK in the early 1960s to train as an actuary by ‘the Pru’, and took the Tube from Hanger Lane to Holborn daily, until jacking it in in 1980 to run an Indian restaurant. My mum was a housewife when we were kids, but then went to work for BT at the telephone exchange in Ealing when I was a sixth-former, which demonstrates the coming of the dual-earner economy. The fact that I’m still a W5 resident, despite having moved away for university and worked abroad for a stint, shows the gravitational pull of both suburbia at large and Ealing in particular, where many of my contemporaries also ended up. It’s a family friendly area that people move to for its schools and parks, which as a mum I now use, following my parents before me. I have two siblings who are also constituents. It’s an enormous honour and privilege to serve the community I grew up in — and quite rare in modern times.
My seat spans a range of housing types and populations. In many ways it shows the multi-faceted nature of the London suburbs and continuity and change within them. Many London suburbs grew out of transport links — the Metroland suburbs of north-west London eulogised by John Betjeman are well known.
In my seat, we have several Tube stops, and a terminus at Ealing Broadway. Think of the architectural boldness of Frank Pick’s interwar stations, such as Park Royal with its vertical tower protruding over the A40, telling all and sundry that it is there, with its Haymills Estate of comfortable interwar homes with garages from whence Reggie Perrin left every morning in the BBC’s eponymous 1970s sitcom. Transport concerns and decisions still characterise my bulging postbag/inbox/Twitterfeed.
New infrastructure projects are underway in my patch. We are still awaiting a decision on airport expansion, but the Conservative government seems to be kicking this ever further into the long grass. Our local Heathrow is full to capacity. Opinions are polarised and whatever one says on the subject is bound to upset someone; but here we have a clear case of jobs versus environment.
Meanwhile, at the corner of Old Oak on the eastern fringe of my constituency, with boundaries spanning the boroughs of Brent and Hammersmith and Fulham, we are promised the Canary Wharf of the west when in the next two decades this designated London Mayoral super-opportunity development area takes shape. It’ll be bisected by HS2 and Crossrail, so will enjoy connectivity to Birmingham and beyond — not just central London, which the old suburbs were modelled on.
Perhaps you're tired of London when you're fatigued by the way that ordinary people are being priced out. In my constituency, the average three-bedroom house costs around £500,000 — it’s much higher in certain postcodes. Old Oak will boast 24,000 new dwellings, but as a local politician I’ll be fighting for the jobs that come with it to be accessible to locals, and the housing affordable, to keep up the mixed nature that used to define our area.
If they’re all two-bedroom rabbit hutches for millionaires to be bought off plan by overseas investors only to lie empty as investment vehicles not homes, how will that affect the residents of Ealing and Acton?
Rupa Huq chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Planning and the Built Environment in London and is Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton