A city’s obsession: A commentary on the BBC’s ‘London and the Rest’

MInd the Gap: London and the Rest (Source: BBC)

The show currently on BBC2, Mind the Gap, is well worth a watch as it covers many of themes that are important to modern urban geographical studies (you can watch it on the iPlayer, but only till 17th March), notably those being taught at undergradute level, not least by me for GG2053. The first episode ‘London and the Rest’, offered a useful insight into why London is a Global City, and what this means not only for the population of London, but for the rest of the UK and indeed the world. However, despite it’s rather glossy veneer and The Apprentice-style, helicopter, Gods-eye-view aesthetics that is so ubiquitous within mainstream documentaries, the program masked just as many important issues as it did illuminate. It failed to launch the visceral critique that its presenter threatened to do at times (his conservative approach masked an obvious desire to launch a tirade against this gargantuan urban behemoth), and in so doing presented a rather polemic, but no less informative pointer to why London has become the teeming Global City it is today. So I want to map out (using the traditional scalar model for clarity’s sake) a few points of departure from the episode that will help contextualise it in the wider relevant debates about contemporary urban studies.

1. The Local scale  

One of the key points that the program made was about ‘agglomeration economics’, or clustering; “two people working next to one another are more productive than two people working separately” was the presenter, Evan Davis’ claim. This increased productivity is a key perceived advantage of clustering and the reason for many urban development projects all over the world. The example of Kings Cross Central was used, and during the piece, the Floridian overtones were obvious to all: “The most sought after, creative people in the world, like it or not, happen to want to live and work next to, other creative sought after people”. The three Ts were in stark evidence here, and I suspect the researchers of the show had a copy of the ‘Rise of the Creative Class‘ in the editing room. Notwithstanding the multitude of critiques of this purported ideology, the major problem is that the program didn’t really engage with the wider processes, catalysts and consequences of this ideology, masking the deeper problems that such a reasoning creates. The empirical example offered was of Central St Martins and its creative students being a draw for Google who are building its UK headquarters in the new Kings Cross development. There may be some element of subjective, PR-riddled truth to this, but Google’s presence in London’s new Kings Cross development speaks far more to the land rent opportunities that is afforded, and the tax benefits of claiming land in the ever-internationalising London real estate stock. £650m Google are paying for the site, and estimations are it would be worth £1bn upon completion. A tidy profit, that has the added benefit of not being subject to US taxation laws. The presence of Central St Martins is an added bonus no doubt, but there are wider capitalistic process at work, and Google are effectively exploiting the rent gap that the Kings Cross development affords.

The other important example that the program offered was the Heygate Estate. This piece of classic brutalist housing has been the subject of fierce debate over recent times, and exemplifies classic gentrification at its most opaque. The development of the estate into new housing that is nowhere near affordable, and currently being flogged to international investors is a process that is going on across the capital, rendering London completely out of reach to the local council and low-income residents who will be forced out to ever increasing remote parts of the country. The program focused on the private residents of Heygate, failing to present the even more depressing stories of council tenants forced to move to far reaching locations outside of Southwark and even outside of the South East. Davis proclaims that within the development process there are “big winners and losers, it’s like so much economic progress, it’s brutal”. Indeed, but there are a lot more losers than winners. Jimi Payne’s story is one that is sadly repeated ad infinitum across the capital as more and more the ‘failed utopias‘ of post-war urban housing development programs are torn down to build ever increasingly homogenous housing units that will be under-occupied by new-middle class international tenants looking for a safe short to mid-term investment. London’s housing has become a bank vault for Middle and Far Eastern investors.

2. National Scale 

‘London and the Rest’ is the name of the program, and much of the critique of London within the episode focused on it ‘sucking’ resources from the rest of the UK. Examples were given of people who commute from Stockport to Shoreditch to help people hawk One Sure Insurance for their cars, and this tale is one that I’m sure many of us can replicate with not-to-distant acquaintances. There is little doubt that London dominates the other cities of the UK in terms of economic performance. But is this good for the rest of the UK? This question was debated in a surreal conversation between Davis and the Mayor of London who traded inane metaphors of London without ever actually saying anything useful. (Also, how apt that this conversation took place in the exclusive restaurant in The Shard, the only piece of that building that is actually occupied, as it continues to struggle to sell office space – something which speaks to London’s obsession with real estate development at the cost of actual sustainable economic activity). Boris’ ‘jam’ analogy was sadly typical of his media-savvy buffoonery that so craftily circumnavigates his complete inability to understand the process of urbanisation. The program’s wider context, as part of the BBC and broad national rhetoric that needs to be adhered to, forces it to ask the question about the UK, when in reality, London’s economy is extricating itself from the UK on a daily basis. Yes, it is rinsing the national tax base for infrastructure projects, but it is global in its productivity and consumption patterns. The UK, as an entity is irrelevant to London’s economic motives – it is only when those motives creates waste, that the national ideology is called upon to deal with it. Welfare, infrastructure, regulation (what little there is) – these are all by-products of a feral capitalistic process that require a national framework to operate from. Such a framework is unprofitable so not the purview of the city at all.

3. Global Scale

Which of course leads onto the Global scale. London is a Global City – of that there is little doubt. Sassen’s triumvirate of cities in her seminal text heralds London as a beacon of financial production par excellence. As the show was at pains to point out, London is competing with New York, Tokyo, Paris and other major international metropolises for talent, companies and finance. The theoretical specificities of what it is to be a Global City have been lost in the term’s transmogrification into a policy term that makes for good PR. As such, many cities purport to be Global Cities, but London really is one because of its ability to generate financial capital at a stratospherically obscene rate. London therefore is seen to have far more in common with New York than it does with Birmingham or Manchester (at least from an economic perspective). However, the program heralded London’s international connections (via investment and collaborations) and lauded its propensity to compete globally. In an era of inter-urban competition, of urban entrepreneurialism, that fact that cities are competing against each other has become a matter of fact – something that is just accepted. And this is where the program has its most problems. The chin-stroking about London’s effect within in a national paradigm belied the more overt global issues which has created London’s dominance in the first instance. Late capitalist economic globalisation has siloized cities and created a zero-sum game where if you’re not growing, you’re dying.

And here lies the crux of the issue. London is a Global City (and a ‘successful’ one at that) obsessed with growth. All the major projects, all the planning deregulations and all the privatisation of land is done to prioritise economic growth and capitalistic urbanisation – a mantra that has been made all the more politically and socially palatable because of the recent recession. All the major problems associated with growth – an exploding underclass of exploited workers, the destruction of communities, the astronomical rise in rents, increasing under-occupancy, centralisation of power – come about through this obsession, a compulsion to continue to make more money, to always reach for the next level, no matter the social, cultural or community cost. ‘Mind the Gap’ despite the vignettes of the problems that this can create, did very little to shed light on the prevailing issues that catalyse this obsession. Cities like London will continue to grow and become enclaves of international capital and exploitation unless we can cure this compulsive obsession.

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