Six cities. Two nations. Has London peaked? And does it matter?

by Nicholas Boys Smith

This is the first, very welcome, article for On London by Nicholas Boys Smith, the director of Create Streets, which, in its own words, exists to “help communities and developers create beautiful street-based places” that work socially and economically for generations.

We all know the postulates. Brexit. Crazy house prices. Cool Lisbon. Ambitious Paris led by clever Mr Macron. British banking in deep chill, frozen out by a vengeful Brussels. Thirtysomethings leaving the capital. Heck, even Donald Trump does not want to come to South London. Cities, like kings, rely not on divine right to be great but on their human qualities. (Quality of education is one of the best predictors of a city’s future success). Might 2018 be the year that “London turned”? In 1840, Macaulay imagined a far future when “some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s.” Could this be the start of the fall?

It is easy to forget how recent and profound is London’s renaissance. Those of us (oh dear) born in the 1970s can remember a London that was much shabbier, shorter and less shiny, a London whose sudden emergence into the cool world city of Love Actually and the 2012 Olympics was less a revival than a phoenix-like transformation. In the 1980s the city re-discovered its role as a global city at the heart of a mercantile world economy. This was a role partially forgotten for much of the previous hundred years and one it had arguably not played since the twin disasters of World War I and protectionism ended the international capitalism of the nineteenth century.

This time, however, the commercial nexus which Londoners helped build and service spins faster. The distance between hub and spoke, between the commodities traders in Lombard Street and the commodity producers in Kenya or Malaysia, has been collapsed by technology. It is not just that internet and plane are faster than telegraph and steamer. The quantity and quality of data that can now be transmitted around the world is also exponentially greater and richer. The gaps between rich and poor, within London and beyond, are nearly as big as well.

Just how deep is the trench that has opened up between London and other cities became clear in a book, Beyond Locationpublished by Create Streets last year about the relationship between urban form and value. As part of this study, we conducted a uniquely wide-ranging analysis of every single property sale (160,000 in all) in six English cities – London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle. In order to understand what people really value, we then compared prices paid to “big data” measures of street pattern, age of buildings, connectivity, amount of greenery, age of buildings and many more. (You can read more about it here).

One fascinating, unlooked for, side finding emerged. We knew that London property prices would far outreach those of other cities. We had not realised how the pattern of land values would vary. At the risk of simplifying, London’s value was historical and concentric. Obviously, the centre was stratospherically pricey. But the old attractive Victorian walkable suburbs were pretty damn expensive as well. Other equally well-connected places with very different urban patterns were not. And the heritage premium (proximity to a listed building) is five times greater than the new-build premium. Perhaps oddly, given its size and superficial modernity, London is a true compact city, valuing not just accessibility and public transport but also the civic virtues of walkability and very traditional neighbourhoods. That’s what people pay for.

Some things were very similar in other cities. The centre had value. The heritage premium topped the new build premium nearly everywhere. And areas of high density but high open space (towers in the park) were low value without exception. However, differences emerged as well. Extended sub-urbanism often trumped urbanism. Outer twentieth century suburbia, the ring of houses near the countryside, were relatively more valued away from London. The inner suburbs, the types of place that, in the 1980s, used to be referred to inaccurately as the inner-cities, were relatively less valued.

In short, London’s urban rebirth has breadth and depth with all the consequent challenges of gentrification and competition for homes that this brings. The city has a deep pull to residents. The pattern of land values reveals that this is just not as true in any other city, whatever concert halls have been re-built or plazas re-polished in the long pre-2008 boom. It is not just that residents are looking to attractions beyond the city rather than within it. There just aren’t enough paying jobs in other cities to repopulate them. Many of England’s other cities are still basically semi-deserted compared to the scale of their history. Liverpool’s population is not much more than half its pre-war peak. Not so much standing on the shoulders of giants as walking in their shadows.

London is not primus inter pares. It is a world apart. Six cities. Two nations. Describing the rich and the poor in 1845, Disraeli wrote of, “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.” Could he be describing modern London and much of the rest of the UK? It sometimes feels so.

And this is really the point. Good, resilient national economies need many cities as their agents of growth and innovation. Britain’s Victorian history of civic enterprise and spirit is bountiful. (Ask the newish director of London’s Victoria and Albert, Tristram Hunt, who first made his name writing about it). The history of Birmingham is particularly tragic as a pre-industrial entrepot of intellectual creativity and the latest manufacturing wheeze declined into a one company town (I am exaggerating) which was first nationalised and then shrunk almost out of existence. Meanwhile, first pollution and then the motor car destroyed the city centre as a place of pleasure and pride.

Britain desperately needs her other great cities to re-find their status and beauty as real cities, not just city centres. They cannot just be shiny business districts with some prosperous outer suburbs. Our analysis of value patterns reveals how desperately different many remain from London and how, well, profoundly non-urban they are.

I have no idea (and, in all honesty, no one does) how London’s global status will be affected by Brexit. For what it is worth, my guess would be that it will take a knock in the short term but that it will bounce back just fine, thank you. London’s scale and the quality of its workforce and industry will prove sufficiently flexible and highly skilled. All economic predictions are exercise in informed guesswork. Right now, that is particularly so. But most have London proving more flexible than other cities and regions.

However, what Britain really needs is not a slightly more prosperous London. And certainly not a poorer one. Britain needs other great cities, as great places to study, work, live, raise families and educate children. And, spoiler alert, that doesn’t mean gleaming central towers and fast roads into the countryside but the civic, intellectual and physical infrastructure of education, wealth-creation, great streets, trains and trams, popular architecture, good schools and a more walkable, humane civic life. Walkable streets are infrastructure too. And without a more broadly-conceived real urban renaissance, Britain will remain a place of many cities but two nations. In the end, lop-sided creatures always fall over and the traveller from New Zealand is waiting.

Books by Nicholas Boys Smith include Beyond Location, Heart in the Right Street and (forthcoming) From NIMBY to YIMBY: how to build homes and win votes. You can follow Create Streets on Twitter. Illustration: London – A Pilgrimage, by Gustave Doré.

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