Crowded but wonderful.

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In Defense of London

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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London's posh parts, according to esteemed New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, resemble "a mausoleum reserved for the occasional use of the globe’s peripatetic rich and their ample staffs." He's leaving, for New York. London's two priorities, according to author and blogger Cory Doctorow, are "being a playground for corrupt global elites who turn neighbourhoods into soulless collections of empty safe-deposit boxes in the sky, and encouraging the feckless criminality of the finance industry." He's also leaving, for Los Angeles. Maybe, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, they're both tired of life. More likely, London is increasingly a victim of its own success.

Eloquent articles penned by Cohen and Doctorow in recent weeks, plus a Rowan Moore piece in The Observer newspaper (accusing London of being "the city that ate itself"), paint a bleak picture of the capital that I, for one, don't recognize.

While acknowledging the great strides London has made in the culinary, cultural and cleanliness rankings, all three writers focus their disillusion with the biggest city in Europe on a single shortcoming: the lack of affordable housing. Moore is particularly scathing, accusing London of "suffering a form of entropy whereby the distinctive or special is converted into property values."

I've lived in London since 1989, longer than I spent in my Liverpool birthplace. And, trust me: Housing has never felt affordable here, either to buy or to rent. For newcomers, house sharing has always been the norm, not the exception. Even for couples, sacrificing the luxury of a second bedroom for the necessity of a third person's income has been standard procedure for years. And while house price growth in London has been double that of the rest of the U.K. in the past five years, the capital has always been a much pricier place to buy a home:

There's no question that there's a housing shortage in the U.K. But that's a national dilemma, not a regional issue. The particular problem in London is that the influx of arrivals seeking their fortunes is stretching the city's resources to breaking point. London's population has reached a record 8.6 million, the Greater London Authority said in February. Extrapolating its recent growth, London will be home to 10 million people by 2035 and 11 million by 2050 -- meaning the population is set to expand by a quarter in the coming three decades:

Doctorow complains that "the titans of finance and extraction sneer at me as someone who's occupying land that could be put to better use by being 'redeveloped,' left largely empty, then flipped a decade later to someone even richer." While there's undoubtedly some truth in the stories of overseas oligarchs parking their ill-gotten gains in empty London apartments, the rich aren't typically in the habit of sitting on unproductive assets when they could be leased out for profit.

The cranes that crowd the London skyline are testament to the housebuilders' efforts to add more abodes; and while Cohen opines in his Times piece that some of those new developments "are certainly for wealthy Greeks fleeing their country's problems," I'm willing to bet that the vast bulk of them will end up hosting ordinary Londoners.

And where I see the same Schumpeterian creative destruction that's always characterized the London I know, with dense modern apartment blocks adorned by high-tech cladding replacing ugly low-rise concrete eyesores, Moore at the Observer sees dystopia, displacement and distress:

Although the cranes swing, the new living zones now being created range from the ho-hum to the outright catastrophic. The skyline is being plundered for profit, but without creating towers to be proud of or making new neighbourhoods with any positive qualities whatsoever. If London is an enormous party, millions of people are on the wrong side of its velvet rope.

I disagree. While there always have and always will be rich and poor parts of London, the no-go districts where you might risk getting mugged are as rare as the rarefied establishments that might not let your jeans and training shoes into their bar. London is a hotbed of diversity and egalitarianism. It's not just the range of accents and languages and skin tones jostling peacefully together; it's also a petri dish of cultures and classes, with enough free art and music and theatre to feed the soul of even the lowest-paid worker.

There's also an almost unfailing politeness. Bump into someone on the street and they'll apologize for your clumsiness. Road rage is a rarity, even though traffic crawls through the higgledy-piggledy streets at a pace similar to the speeds the horses and carts of yore achieved. And -- tourists aside -- the escalators that take what locals know as the Tube into the bowels of the earth to catch the Underground trains are havens of orderliness, with those content to be transported standing patiently to the right, leaving the left-hand side clear for those rushing under the combined steam of the metal walkway and their own two legs.

That brings me to my final argument as to why London remains one of the finest cities on earth to live in. The city is currently enduring yet another strike by the Underground workers. Transport for London, the government agency that operates the Tube, plans to introduce night-time running of the subway system. Such a service extension will show New Yorkers that theirs isn't the only city that never sleeps. The train operators are understandably annoyed at the prospect of becoming night workers, and are seeking higher compensation. The transportation services Londoners depend on shut down at the end of the working day yesterday, and won't reopen until tomorrow.

So the more than 4.3 million journeys that would typically happen on the Underground will instead happen above ground, swelling the average bus total of 6.3 million journeys and laying bare just how crowded the capital is.

But there'll be no fisticuffs over taxis, or shouting as the overcrowded buses groan their way from stop to stop, or sharpened elbows barging a path on the congested pavements. Whether or not they sympathize with the striking Tube workers, Londoners will keep calm and carry on. Cohen and Doctorow may have tired of London; I'm staying put. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Paula Dwyer at pdwyer11@bloomberg.net