London can’t afford to ignore inequality any longer
By Stephen Whitehead, Researcher, Valuing What Matters
Image by George Rex via Flickr
As Londoners set to with brooms and binbags, trying to clear away the signs of last night’s violence, there’s a strange sense of unreality over the capital. Despite the sirens blaring through the night, despite the wreckage on the streets, despite the smoke on the skyline, it seems hard to believe that this could have happened. The breakdown of the social order was so sudden and so apparently total, that it defies understanding.
This is London, after all. Not one England’s decaying, post-industrial relic cities. This is the jewel in England’s economic crown, the beating heart of the global financial network, the millionaires’ playground. Yes, we all know that things are bad in Hackney, in Lambeth, in Barking. But we never quite believed that this would effect us.
In fact, London is by far the most unequal city in the UK, or by some measures, in the developed world. Its riches are matched by pockets of sheer, unmitigated poverty. The richest tenth of Londoners possess a staggering 273 times as much wealth as the poorest. Hackney and Tower Hamlets are among the most deprived parts of England, while the satellite towns like St Albans whose residents flock to London every day are among the least. While bonuses flow in the city, youth unemployment is running at over 20%.
Violent disorder is not a novelty for London’s poorest areas. While across England murder rates have fallen, the regular litany of young men killing and injuring other young men in poor urban areas has become depressingly familiar. But as tragic as it was, from the leafy streets of Clapham, or Chalk Farm it all looked like somebody else’s problem.
So when, last night, angry young people erupted out of the estates and into the high streets it was a shock. Not because we didn’t know they were there, but because we never expected them to come here.
Today, commentators from the left and the right are keen to hang labels on the motivations of the rioters, rearranging facts in a way which fits their viewpoints. The rioters’ convenient anonymity lets them be class warriors, anarchists, anti-cuts protestors, uber-consumers or just straightforward, mindless thugs. The truth, as ever, will be more complex than that.
But one thing is clear. Affluent London can no longer fool itself into believing that the cost of living cheek-by-jowl with poverty can be paid in car alarms, window bars and insurance premiums.