London is perhaps the most international city in the world. It sits at the centre of a centuries-old web that connects us to the world through trade, transport, finance, politics – and military power.
London’s problems cannot be understood or solved without grasping their roots in the city’s relationships with the rest of the world.
London is desperately short of housing for its ordinary citizens. The city blooms with construction projects, devouring social housing to build premium offices and luxury flats. London property is a ‘safe haven’ investment for foreign elites who strip their lands of resources – oil, coffee, food, timber – to stock our shops and feed our addiction to carbon fuels. Whose countrymen make us shiny phones and cheap shoes. Who buy our weapons to stay in power. Their children and their riches will never be safe where they have done this. London property is the reserve currency for the men who stole the world.
This property does not have to be lived in. It is an investment for grandchildren, an insurance against political change. The climate disasters and their war and turmoil are upon us. Athens and Budapest get refugees from Syria. London gets oligarchs from Russia, manufacturers from China, sheiks from Saudi Arabia. Athens and Budapest get refugees from Syria. London gets oligarchs from Russia, manufacturers from China, sheiks from Saudi Arabia.
London is a safer haven even than the United States, our institutions more thoroughly corrupted by corporate power. The City of London and its web of associated tax havens are the world’s favourite means of hiding wealth from scrutiny or regulation.
Probably the fastest way to prick the London property bubble would be to elect a Green government, with its commitment to shutting down the tax shelters and weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. Meanwhile much can be done locally.
Political friends of the developers blame planning controls for London’s housing shortage. In a sense, they are right. London’s planning controls should be ensuring the property development boom builds homes for ordinary Londoners. But the controls don’t work. Planners require developers to build “affordable housing” at 20% under market price. But the people who can’t afford the sky-high market price can’t afford 80% of it either. Then, during construction, land prices rise, the developer pleads poor and reduces his commitment to build even this.
Against all reason, politicians advocate loosening the existing controls. Somehow, magically, a liberated market is to deliver homes for ordinary Londoners. After thirty years of neoliberalism, you’d think this theory had been tested to destruction.
London councils still have stocks of ‘brownfield’ land on which homes could be built. Social housing, were the councils not starved of resources for building them. But – for all the rage against planning controls – no one knows how much brownfield land there is. Building homes for Londoners starts with finding out.
London’s air pollution kills 9,500 of us each year, shortening our lives by 11-12 years. The actual harm exceeds any plausible threat from terrorism and requires more vigorous measures. The air we breathe is killing us.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) publishes guidelines as to what levels of pollution are safe to breathe. European law limits how much poison may be put into our air. London breaks these limits, which themselves exceed what WHO says is safe. The European Commission has for years threatened the Mayor with action in the European Court of Justice for failing to reduce the pollution to legal levels. In April 2015 our Supreme Court ordered the UK government to act.
The chief sources of the poisons are motor traffic and domestic boilers. Technical measures can reduce emissions from diesel engines, but London’s air cannot be made safe to breathe without reducing motor traffic in the city, as other cities have already done.
London’s transport planners face doing this even without pollution. There is no way for the public transport system and congested road network to absorb the expected population growth without a substantial shift in transport ‘modes’. Many journeys now made by private car will be made on foot, bicycle or by public transport. The sooner the better.
And we need not burn so much fuel to heat our homes. Public investment in insulation and more efficient boilers will reduce emissions of both pollutants and greenhouse gases, reduce our addiction to fossil fuels and stimulate local employment.