London is an oyster – if you can afford the fare. With excellent travel infrastructure and miles of heritage to explore, you can hop from a global museum to the Palace of Westminster in 10 minutes. If you grow up here, mobility is a gift granted to you in a way it is not to a boy or girl growing up in a small town or village. On a young Londoners’ doorstep are universities and the financial centre and cultural capital of the world – at least theoretically.
In the UK’s political debate about Citizens of Somewhere versus Citizens of Nowhere, Londoners are seen as the latter. Yet the opportunities to be mobile a child growing up in London has thanks to the city’s infrastructure and their proximity to its wonders doesn’t guarantee mobility. It is an age-old cliche to talk of a tale of two cities, but any working-class Londoner could tell you a story of London that is radically different from that of a young professional. The latter tend to dominate the headlines – and subsequently form the stereotypes – but theirs is a whole different London to that of those who grew up poor here.
Such Londoners grow up in the shadow of towers that, ultimately, they cannot access. Their London is smaller, as I know from my own experience. Because Londoners like me could not afford the Tube fare as kids, or because days out were expensive, or because our jobs were local, our worlds were locked in to a three mile radius of our London neighbourhoods. The communities we belonged to were Walthamstow, Lewisham, or Peckham. These areas defined identity and being a Londoner came second. Those tight-knit communities are still there. They always have been, shaped by communitarianism and belonging. And by adversity.
Those Londoners are locked out of much of London’s wealth, despite living relatively near it. Gentrification only exacerbates that divide. In Elephant & Castle, gentrification’s “ground zero”, new private rental developments go for £1,800 a pop per month – far from the arm’s reach of even the nationally average salaried worker. Living close to wealth doesn’t ensure you share in it and can even mean you are driven away.
This isn’t always recognised. For example, many prestigious universities use a classification system called POLAR – participation of local areas – to assess the social backgrounds of applicants. POLAR will only “flag” you for contextual admission if your neighbourhood as a whole has low participation rates in higher education.
But many Londoners, even the poorest, live close to colleges and not much further from the LSE and UCL and KCL, some of the best universities in the world. My contemporaries growing up knew very, very few people who went on to Russell Group universities, and those that did did not go to those in London. Working-class and BAME Londoners find it notoriously difficult to access those institutions.
This disadvantage will follow them their whole lives. The top firms of London, those financial service companies that pave its streets in gold, are also very often closed to the London-born working-class. Recruitment of working-class people into the top professions remains low. For Londoners among them, proximity has not opened doors. It hasn’t done much for them at all.
The London that is often caricatured is one of over saturation of the housing and job markets by graduates coming from elsewhere. These graduates face their own hurdles, yet are by default inherently mobile. By contrast, jetting between the London boroughs for university or office jobs is still often a foreign concept to the young poor who grew up here – people whose entire world was a single borough.
One effect of Covid-19 has been to make mobility a memory for all of us. For the first time, many professionals have found their mobility restricted. The pandemic has given them an insight into a more local London that looks very different to the global one that money can buy access to: the after-work pubs, the shopping districts, the restaurants. Suddenly, white collar professionals only have what is in their vicinity, and often only in takeaway form.
As I became more socially mobile – I was one of the few statistical minorities from a working-class background to access university and a well-paid occupation – my London grew bigger. I could afford the pubs, Pret and Ubers, and Zone 1 was my playground. My London has now shrunk again, allowing a revisit of the London I once knew. We should remember, however, that while white collar London will eventually go back to its bustle, working-class young Londoners will continue to grow up in a world infinitely smaller, left out from the main narrative and excluded from the city’s recovering wealth.
Jade Azim is a political commentator and native of Walthamstow. Follow her on Twitter.
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