The problem with London guilt - why metropolitan hand-wringing about the state of the nation make matters worse

I now have a place on Medium, where I post most of my non-Brockley-related writing, to spare you all. However, since my latest article is about London and a phenomenon I think Brockley suffers from, I thought I would post it here too:

Not the problem the nation faces - Londoners hanging out, self-actualising
“They lined up all the toffs and boffins, the chief executives, tycoons and clever-clogs in the (south of the) land, and asked the nation to pat them on the back. The invitation to a punch in the face was too good to miss.”
- Simon Jenkins

Like many Londoners, I suffer from Londoner’s guilt.

I’ll smile, tight-lipped, when some out-of-towner declares London a disgusting hole. I’ll politely change the conversation when someone tries to tell me that bringing up my children in the capital is tantamount to child abuse. I’ll be overly generous about the virtues of Liverpool’s nightlife or Birmingham’s civic buildings. I will be quick to offer a defence of any provincial dive on the basis of how lovely the nearby countryside is. I support the desire to ‘rebalance’ the economy and tut mournfully about how out of touch the metropolitan elite is with the plight of those in other parts of the country.

I do all of that because I know how lucky I am to live in London and there’s no need to rub it in to anyone who doesn’t.

But the Brexit vote has shown that this is a bad strategy. Londoners’ guilt was a luxury we thought we could afford because we were living through a golden age, but it was storing up problems.

The Leave win wasn’t just a vote to choke immigration, it was an act of nihilism. Voters chose to harm London — to cut down a Gherkin-sized poppy.

It is time Londoners’ stop accepting the blame for every problem the UK faces. London’s ascent is the inevitable result of two long-term economic forces that none of us is responsible for.

The first is agglomeration economics.

Growth is increasingly driven by the convergence of different industries and technologies — and the transfer of knowledge between them. Cities create a network effect, producing serendipitous encounters and making collaboration and exchange much easier. As cities grow, the network effect becomes more powerful.

Elite athletes benefit from training alongside each other, learning from each other and raising the bar each day. So too, companies improve from working side by side. Large cities find it easier to sustain centres of excellence than smaller ones. The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ strategy was based on this phenomenon. The sum of Manchester’s growing clusters of excellence in industries like the media, materials science and sport will be greater than its parts.

Big cities also create a larger potential market for investors and entrepreneurs — they are typically the first places to attract new services and usually the only places that can support major attractions. For example, a restaurant like Bluebird on the Kings Road needs to serve around 100,000 covers a year— which makes it hard for anywhere outside London to support more than a handful of places like this. But business tends to congregate where there are fancy restaurants, hotels and a plethora of support facilities and specialist services.

The second is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

At a recent conference on Sustainable Cities, Director of Global Research for JLL, Rosemary Feenan, argued that as we have become richer, the role that cities play in our lives has fundamentally changed in-line with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

When we were poor, cities were primarily places to look after our basic physiological needs — we fled the countryside in search of the higher incomes offered by industry. A small town could do that job pretty well. As we became richer, we created cities that offered us a sense of belonging, giving birth to an explosion of clubs and civic institutions. But larger towns were typically needed to sustain these.

Today, in an age of relative abundance, we are increasingly driven by the desire for self-actualisation. To be all that we can be. Spending on ‘experiences’ is rising much faster than spending on ‘stuff’.

It is the great cities that offer the richest opportunities to be, to do and to meet — to become. And people are willing to trade square footage for unique and wonderful moments. Not all people of course, but typically the most ambitious, creative and adventurous ones.

Look at them all. Go to Hyde Park or Brick Lane on a sunny day. Get up at 6am and go for a run on the South Bank. Stay out after midnight in Hoxton. The city is teeming with beautiful, talented people doing stuff all the time. Now take a train from Kings Cross (where you’ll trip over people from Google or St Martins making things and making money) to almost any provincial town or city you can think of — the difference is stark. There are fine places. Ever so clean. If you are lucky, in the middle of the day, outside the main train stations of even our biggest cities, there might be a couple of pensioners waiting for a bus. And that’s your lot. Durham is nice, but the opportunities to self-actualise are minimal.

This urge to become (turbo-charged by Instagram and Twitter, which award social cache to those with the most overtly fabulous lives) means that talent will increasingly cluster in the biggest world cities. As Michael Bloomberg observed, the best and brightest want to be where the action is...

For the rest of the article (yes, there's more!), click here.


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