Leafy Barnet is one of the most prosperous of London's boroughs - and one of the last places you might expect to find a food bank. However, due to necessity, there's been one operating for the last six months. Hundreds of people have had to use the service, which is fast becoming a more common feature across suburban London. There are now 40 food banks throughout the city, and they which have issued food parcels to over 42,000 people.
Many in the media act as if London is living in a separate world from the rest of the country, with some claiming that it has all but recovered from the crash. A recent feature in the Daily Mail repeated the claim that London has 'shrugged off the recession' and others have concluded that Britain is experiencing a polarised 'two-speed' recovery which sees London benefit while the north of the country stands still. There is definitely money in the south, but not everyone is benefiting from it. The problem with these critiques is that they judge the health of the city by its most affluent residents.
The reality, though, is that London is a city of great inequality. One recent study described it as the most unequal city in the developed world. The grand parks, decadent mansions and big glass skyscrapers mask the fact that the city's wealth is inaccessible to most, with the poorest 50% owning less than 5%. Unemployment in London may be decreasing, but it's still above the national average -this is in a city where the cost of living (excluding housing) is 10% higher than the already expensive city of Edinburgh. The average wage may be higher than the rest of the UK but this is a very deceptive measurement as wages change so much across the city - average wages in Wimbledon are over 75% higher than they are in Brent. The Coalition Government's welfare cuts have hit Londoners disproportionately, with the recent benefit cap costing over 7000 London families over £100 a week.
One of the most ambitious and high profile responses to the challenges facing the city has come from London mayor Boris Johnson, who has presented a surprisingly pro-state vision for London in 2020. The report itself feels as much like a bid for the Tory party leadership as it does a serious agenda for the city. Johnson is right to say London is unique, and I agree that the problems it faces are different from those of the other UK cities and regions. This isn't because it's better or worse than any other part of the country, but it's differentiated by its size, scope, demographics and local economy.
Perhaps the biggest issue affecting London is housing. Not only has the cost of rent risen eight times faster than wages over the last 12 months, but the number of homes being built has fallen by two thirds. At one end of the social spectrum there are mansions selling for up to £250 million, but at the other end there has been a 13% increase in homelessness since 2012. Across the middle class there is a growing acceptance that the price of buying has become prohibitive, with a majority of private tenants believing that they will never own their own homes.
It's very tempting for those outside the city to view it in terms of its galleries, bistros and tourist traps. For well-salaried young professionals who work in zone one, it's all too easy to experience London through the prism of a safe middle class bubble, but that experience is not universal. In political and cultural terms the city may be the epicentre of British power, but for too many that power is unobtainable. The great wealth in some parts of the city coexists with the worst poverty in England. Nowhere is this contrast starker than with life expectancy; someone living in West Ham is likely to die 21 years younger than someone living in Mayfair.
The riots of two years ago lifted the lid on the reality of the city. The disruption may have stopped but the tensions that caused it are still prevalent. The cranes on the skyline provide reasons to be optimistic, but behind the bright lights of the West End and financial district the city has very serious social problems. At a time when food banks, homelessness and austerity are becoming commonplace, it's clear that large numbers aren't seeing any tangible benefit from London's top down, 'two-speed' recovery.
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