Can London Still Take It?



‘London Can Take It’ was a short propaganda film from 1940 showing the effect of the Blitz on its buildings and people. But since then the metropolis faced three building booms that tested the theory. In the 1960s, the 1980s and the present it underwent its periodic growth spurts, driven by developers, and where we are now is nothing like where we were then.

Now comes the news that within the next decade London will become a megacity of over ten million. The projections are based on population estimates, fertility and mortality rates and migration. They reflect current trends and don’t take into account the ability of an area to accommodate any extra population, but even so massive problems have started emerging.

Obviously housing is one, highlighted by the recent furore over a virtually empty luxury tower wherein hardly a single owner was registered to vote in the UK, but public transport is fast approaching its maximum load.

Even with the Crossrail project allowing East-West travel, restrictions have started on the world’s oldest tube system, with some stations closing at peak hours. Rush hour journeys now feel actively dangerous at some stops, and overland trains aren’t much better. The congestion charge, which had only ever been about raising revenue, has spectacularly failed, and streets are clogged with rush-hour traffic.

The City Road corridor is now being lined with vast tower blocks. There’s just one problem – all of them are served by just two tube stations, Angel and Old Street. How will tenants (assuming any remain in London and not in Dubai) travel? Our former mayor blithely signed off on any building project he could lay his hands on, leading to a bizarre situation at Elephant & Castle, where the dilapidated, crumbling shopping precinct (still there) now stands at the foot of several ‘luxury’ tower blocks which appear to have been designed by sight-impaired architects.

Meanwhile the mayor of Spain’s second largest city has an almost identical problem. Barcelona swells to the size of London during the summer, but has a fraction of the residential population (2.1m compared to 8.2m). It has virtually the same tube system (free Wifi, runs all night) and fewer green spaces – but it has a coastline. But it’s actively seeking a solution. So are there any lessons to be learned?

One is controlling tourism. Where I live in London AirB&B operate illegally in almost half of the flats around me, hotel construction has spiralled out of control and older residents are being encouraged to leave (there’s a poster campaign asking them to downsize and effectively go away). Thankfully our new mayor is already seeking to address the issue.

The new Europe is a place of great fluidity brought about by job opportunities and cheap travel, making for wonderful opportunities, but it comes with a hefty price tag. Meanwhile, welcome to London, future megacity.

13 comments on “Can London Still Take It?”

  1. Vivienne says:

    We should – not sure if the new Mayor can help here – have more positive planning. At present it seems to be developer-led. A proposal is put forward and then wrangling starts. If there was a clear plan to begin with, London could be more rational. We have probably left it too late to build many more underground lines, so a denser centre could reduce commuting. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to have a standard of 10-12 storey blocks a bit like Palermo, rather than Victorian terraces punctuated by 25 storey towers? That one at Elephant and Castle looks more like an office block – no opening windows, no balconies. The Vauxhall Tower (apparently almost empty) is the same. We are not good at communal living and these places, unless they have hefty management fees for service, are slums in waiting. Empty spaces over shops are a dreadful waste too. I would like to see a new form of short term tenancy aimed at student types who want to live centrally and don’t mind moving on quite often. Lived-in cities are safer at night too, aren’t they?

    I really do not understand why our railway/tube signalling cannot yet cope with trains running a more nose-to-tail service. Tokyo seems to manage this without major accident. Not sure we can get rid of the tourists though.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    No, you can’t get rid of the tourists unless you want to tear down all the sights they want to see. Either that or restrict entrance to voters only the way they did with the Houses of Parliament. Transport is really one key. There must be a way to make the system work. it certainly did for us, but that may have been good luck, even if we did have to deal with rotational strikes.
    You can’t have empty housing. You just can’t. Absentee owners just prevent residents from finding a place and drive up the price of what there is. Is London looking at restricting non-resident owners? A number of cities are and there is talk of that here now that there is a public admission of a problem. The real estate business looked at itself and found that there were agents who were conniving at property flipping so that the person who took possession was not the one who made the original sale agreement and the price at closing was much higher than the one the seller agreed to.
    When a strike in Iceland fouled up our flights, finding a room in London was not as easy as the number of hotels would indicate and have you seen the “rooms” you get in those converted Georgian houses? The bathroom looked to have been lifted from an old train, the one little window didn’t allow air to move at all, I had to keep my eyes closed to prevent claustrophobia and breakfast consisted of cereal, toast and tea. Sharing a bathroom would have been a good thing. They try, I know, and the cost of running those places must be terrible, but it isn’t all peaches and cream for the guests either.

  3. admin says:

    Unfortunately, Vivienne, there was a horrific Tokyo accident precisely because of the nose-to-tail thing – there’s a Storyville on-line about it…

  4. Morten Welde says:

    With the risk of being politically incorrect, immigration is the issue. London is being invaded. I’ve travelled to London since the 1990s and although some things have changed for the better, I would prefer the 90s version than the congested mega city of today.

  5. Vivienne says:

    Oh dear. Back to the drawing board.

  6. Wayne Mook says:

    Empty buildings and a lack planning are not due to migration.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Right on, Wayne!
    I am told by my inhouse authority that there is indeed a calculation as to the minimum safe distance between tube trains, etc. It is a factoring of maximum speed, stopping distance, and loading/unloading time. It number varies with every line, of course, but 1 minute is really as close as they can be. He thinks there may be one or two where they operate slightly below a minute but he cannot name them. So, just rumour.

  8. Jan says:

    Before we get too over excited at planning our way out of this….Take a look at some of the,post war plans,for the New London the planners and architects had in mind for us in the immediate post war year.

    Even the,little bits they managed to get in to the real. World cocked up big style Elephant and Castle redevelopment, destroying Earls court village

  9. Jan says:

    Sorry am trying to defrost fridge and going out in a,minute
    Big strides forward are happening new housing at Earls court on the site,of the old Exhibition centre. New commuter towns cropping up from Oxon to Norfolk…not all the planning for London’s future IS IN London.

    A 2nd crossrail is going t o happen sucking in workers from across the south east and beyond

    But someone has got to be,a bit brave and insist that new property is built and lived in not some bricks a mortar borehole/ moneybox for rich folk from another part of the globe

  10. Jan says:

    Oops sorry. BOLTHOLE that should read

  11. Jan says:

    And one other thing …did anyone see an odd little programme about the London borough of Newham the other night. Only a very few of the original cockney familiar left. A massive influx of immigrants, particularly Moslem people and Eastern europeans.
    Now I’m not coming over all Nigel F or going to.go off on a racist rant but London make up is changing fast. I’ve worked in Newham, Stokey, Tottenham, Harlesden lots of these places and a decade ago they were a massive mix of people but in the l as t few years things,have moved on apace it would seem.
    London particularly l early the east end has been at the centre of incoming newcomers for centuries

  12. Jan says:

    You can watch waves of immigrants arrive in poor Boroughs make money and move out into the suburbs with their new found wealth and new migrants take the space the space they have vacated. I worked in streets in Harlesden, which in the 1970s were purely west Indian and African 30 years later I went back and these streets were largely Eastern European. Places change but it was sad to see people moving on and out of areas because they felt out of place in their own towns. And these people did feel that. It’s easily to be right on and liberal if you are insulated by wealth and the sort of barriers wealth can erect. People felt awkward and threatened by the pace of change. I ‘ve got no answers here but one thing I do know until someone sufficiently high up enough the food chain in the London governing body dares ask a few questions things won’t balance themselves out

  13. Helen Martin says:

    That is true in so many places, Jan. I bemoan the loss of “my” Vancouver, the place my father and I were both born in. It’s not just all the new buildings, but the lack of comprehension of the context. Fancy way of saying “knowing where this place came from.”

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