London is often described as a “city of villages”. This observation is true in two rather different ways. First, as the capital sprawled outwards from the City of London and later, in the 20th century, from the County of London, it embraced hundreds of towns and villages. Second, many places within Greater London still identify as villages or towns in their own right. In Croydon’s case, the town’s name is today a borough’s. Five London commuter rail station names include the word “town” in their name. Hampstead, Highgate and Dulwich all add “village” to themselves. Neighbourhoods such as Pinner, Blackheath, Primrose Hill and even part of Walthamstow still have village identities. The UK’s main airport has the name of a Middlesex hamlet, close to the villages of Harmondsworth and Sipson, within the boundaries of contemporary London.
As London sprawled outwards between the 15th and 19th centuries, parishes became the basis for a rudimentary form of local government in England. The City of London had been granted a charter of self-government by William the Conqueror in 1067, but in the urban area that evolved outside its walls, parishes and shires delivered poor relief, built highways, cleaned streets and delivered justice services. Civil parishes were an important unit of local governance until the end of the 19th century. Generally relatively small areas, they were also part of the identity of many Victorian Londoners. Some, such as St George, Hanover Square (covering parts of Mayfair, Marble Arch and Bayswater), were rich and powerful. Smaller parishes were in some cases grouped into “district boards” to provide a more plausibly sized unit of government.
Around this time, London represented an identity but not a governmental unit, except in the City. For example, the word “London” was not used in the title of either the Metropolitan Police (created in 1829) or Metropolitan Board of Works (1855). It wasn’t until the creation of the London County Council (LCC) in 1889 that the governance of the city changed. The LCC’s powers were greater than those of its predecessor, the Metropolitan Board of Works: it was responsible for city planning and housing as well as education.
Following the LCC’s creation, the rapid expansion of “Greater London” between 1918 and 1939 engulfed mile upon mile of suburban and rural land. Places that were 10 or 15 miles from Charing Cross became, courtesy of the ever-expanding London Transport and commuter rail networks, part of a vast metropolis. Residents of genteel Northwood, Carshalton and Orpington found themselves in a single built-up area along with inner-city Paddington, Lambeth and Southwark.
Against this backdrop of unplanned expansion, it is easy to see why many Outer London areas wanted to keep their original identities. What better way of remembering a more rural and gentler past than retaining affection and civic feelings for the villages and towns that had now been surrounded by an apparently infinite city? At the same time, inner areas within the LCC’s ambit often evolved their own strong sense of place. G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill and a comedy film Passport to Pimlico attest to a romanticised idea of London neighbourhoods with their own identity and character. Despite poverty, neighbourhoods such as Bermondsey, Poplar and Stepney provoked loyalty.
Today’s London government consists of the Greater London Authority (Mayor and Assembly), the City of London and the 32 boroughs. While there may be particularly strong borough identities – notably in places such as Croydon, Bromley and Harrow – identity may be as or more powerful at a neighbourhood or community level. One neighbourhood, Queen’s Park in north Westminster, now has a parish council, while neighbourhood planning is increasingly creating new representative structures in a number of boroughs.
Beyond all of this, it is worth remembering that many non-geographical communities overlay those defined by areas on maps. Many football fans return to London each week from Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent, Surrey and sundry new towns to support Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham or Crystal Palace. People born in the East End still feel loyalty to it when living years later in Southend or Billericay. Indeed, each year many thousands of London residents move to the counties surrounding the capital, creating a “London diaspora” which may, at some point in the future, generate a case for reviewing the boundaries of Greater London.
As many Inner London residents have moved to Outer London, the strength of “London-ness” has also increased. Immigrants, according to polling, generally identify strongly with London. And despite rapid demographic change, people living in London today are as likely to consider themselves “Londoners” as they were 40 years ago. Far from being the preserve of certain groups, the London identity seems widely shared across generations, social classes and ethnic groups, certainly more than British, English or European identities. It is hard to precisely measure how strong the London identity is, but recent events – notably the capital’s vote in the 2016 EU referendum – suggest that London has a different approach to many issues. Such differences alone will reinforce a civic identity as compared to the rest of the UK.
No one doubts that loyalty to neighbourhoods, communities or urban “villages” can bring powerful advantages in terms of better government, social cohesion and quality of life. Any consideration of neighbourhood and locality in contemporary London should be aware of the forces that have shaped local identity in the past. The key question is: how can we best achieve such advantages for all parts of a city of 1500 square kilometres?
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