Magazine

Is London sucking the life out of Britain?

London skyline in the distance

Ever since the days of Dick Whittington, those living outside London have often seen the capital as a city with streets paved with gold. But, asks David Stenhouse, does the city dominate British life?

It is the British city which joined the super-league, the world capital which ranks with Paris, New York and Tokyo.

It is the epicentre of Britain's political, economic and cultural life, the seat of our government, hub of our media and home to one of the world's biggest financial markets.

But even fans of London admit it is too expensive, too dirty and too crowded. And its critics say that it sucks talent, money and opportunities out of the rest of the country.

So how should those of us who live outside London cope with the mega city in our own back yard?

"The one thing that you cannot deny, whether you are in or outside it, is that London is a vast, dominant thing inside the United Kingdom," says Tony Travers, director of the London School of Economics Greater London Group.

Image caption Londoners exhibit excellent queue-forming skills at a Tube station

Because of its enormous population - at 7.7 million, London has only slightly fewer inhabitants than Scotland and Wales combined - and its economic and political importance, the capital dominates the nightly news.

It is home to national museums, galleries and theatres and the place where multinational companies have their headquarters.

It is also where the British media is based - from the BBC's Television Centre to Channel 4, Sky, ITN and the major national daily and Sunday papers.

No wonder that it is also the place where ambitious people from the provinces of Britain - and further afield - flock to make their names.

'Pandora's box of dreams'

And many are convinced that they couldn't have made it by staying at home.

The Scottish fashion designer Deryck Walker first went on a pilgrimage to London after seeing an edition of the South Bank Show devoted to Vivienne Westwood.

"For me it was like a Pandora's box of dreams," he says. "Going to London was key to me becoming a designer."

But in a global context, London is the exception rather than the rule.

The East Coast of the US has New York - the capital of media and commerce - and Washington DC - the capital of government.

Australia has Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra; Spain has Barcelona and Madrid. And Britain has... London, the sprawling, unrivalled capital whose gravitational force exerts a distorting effect on the rest of the country.

Londoners have to pay the price for the capital's status. Residents have sky-high house prices in many areas of the capital - the average house price is now over £1.25m in Kensington and Chelsea - and have high-cost travel, congestion, crime and grime.

But what cost does the rest of the country pay for London?

Talk to business people and civic leaders around the UK and it is not hard to draw up a charge sheet against the capital.

Londoners are said to be rude and insular, and they look down their nose at anyone from the provinces.

"It's an unresolved issue," says Jude Kelly, director of London's Southbank Centre. "Is London a rival to other cities in its own nation, or a repository of their knowledge?"

Those trying to run businesses in the north of England or Scotland have to incur serious expense to even make it to a meeting in the capital, leaving home at four in the morning to make it to London for 9am.

Streets 'paved with gold'

But the biggest charge against London is that it sucks talent and resources out of the rest of the country

Ever since Dick Whittington left the Forest of Dean in the 14th Century in search of his fortune in London, ambitious provincials have headed to the city in search of streets paved with gold.

Did Dick Whittington need London's size and variety to find his niche? Or did his departure to the capital deprive the Forest of Dean of an outstanding Lord Mayor, maybe even one who could have arranged some golden paving for his home town?

Image caption Living the London dream: Dick Whittington in his post-knapsack days

Given the concentration of power in London it's no surprise that since the 1960s successive British governments have tried to move key government departments out of London.

The BBC is the latest public body to follow suit, with the relocation of key staff and programmes to Salford Quays in Manchester.

But even devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has done little to reduce London's power.

The gravitational pull of the capital is hard to resist: not least because many people who have made their career in London find it hard to imagine life outside the M25.

For many people in Britain's public life, London is the only place to be.

But not so long ago the political and cultural landscape of Britain was a good deal less uneven than today.

In the Victorian era, Britain's economic landscape was made up of powerful city states, with their own local governments, distinct political cultures and vibrant economies.

In the north of England, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool were the workshops of the world.

Further north, Glasgow described itself as the "Second City of the Empire" and the mighty Clyde shipyards produced vessels which sailed the seven seas.

But as the manufacturing bases of these other cities declined and London's population and economy soared, London started to seem less and less like a big British city and more and more like a global city which just happened to be based in the south-east of England.

It has amplified the faults - as well as the virtues - of the capital.

Now, as historian and politician Lord Hattersley puts it, London is "hugely crowded, hugely busy and full of people who are not really interested in each other".

The size of London's economy has led some to suggest that the capital should go it alone, and declare independence from the rest of the country.

There are plenty in the rest of the country who might be glad to see it go.

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