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September 21, 2015 / Leo Hollis

Dear Saddiq Khan: an Open Letter

Sadiq-Khan

Dear Saddiq Khan

Congratulations on gaining the Labour nomination for the London Mayor. It couldn’t be a more important time to rethink the role of Mayor of London as well as the nature and identity of the city itself. London is undoubtedly one of the greatest cities in the world – on this we can agree with Boris Johnson – but despite this being MY city, the place where I was born, and the city in which I wish to raise my own children, London is cruel, brutish and unequal place.

On the one hand the city is named by estate agents and banks as an alpha plus plus city, second only to New York. This is a magnet for foreign investment, place to make healthy profits without too many questions and then have unenviable choice of ways of spending it. There are plenty of statistics that show that London is a honey trap for the world’s 1%, and that this is transforming the form and the everyday running of the city.

The recently published map by Private Eye that showed every leasehold and freehold deal done in the UK by offshore company between 2005 and 2014: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/registry. makes for chastening exploration.   

For Boris, like Mayor Bloomberg in New York, attracting the rich was considered the best way to raise up the rest of the city. The metropolis would help itself from the top down. But this has been a failure – and you must not repeat the same urban myth-making. Instead of city making, this process has created an unfair and fragile city. In the last decade or so our home has become closed off, thus increasingly uncivil and – perhaps most dangerous – less sustainable.

London is certainly a great world city, but it is currently not great for everyone. Walk around this place we both call home and you can find the dreams of the city are transcribed across the constructors’ hoardings that encircle London’s building sites. These words turn the bricks, steel and glass that are emerging out from the guts of the earth, into unobtainable aspirations. They foretell of a home that shuts away all the travails of the metropolis, enveloped in luxurious comfort (because you are worth it); or a new office space that promises to be a crucible of Midas-like fortunes. They picture a future un-teathered from the complexities of the present.  

Where Kingsway meets Holborn, we are told to ‘Dream the Impossible Dream’. On Bishopsgate, on the east side of the financial centre, the ‘Unsquare Mile’ promises to be ‘flexible, creative work space.’ On the Isle of Dogs, we are told ‘It will feel like Venice and work like New York’. Hackney Square announces itself with a picture of two hipsters – the man with the requisite waxed moustache: ‘This is the Definition of Urban Living’. (What they are selling is a new development where once stood the Queen Elizabeth’s Children’s Hospital). And my favourite, the revolutionary workspace on the City Road: ‘White Collar Factory’.

Such dreams are, of course, a sleight of hand; they are a three card monte that shuffles in front our our eyes our desire for a place that we feel we deserve, the calculation that the ground beneath our feet is being measured, priced and sold, and the truth that the city that we call home is becoming ever more a place of inequality, risk and exclusion. Our common places have become complicated financial instruments, packaged up, priced and marketed; often without us even noticing until it is too late.

Most discussion of the future London are informed by the belief that, in order for the metropolis to be revived, it must be privatised; that the old, the unproductive, must be replaced, pushed out, in order to make way for the new and the economically productive. Every corner of the city, every moment of the day, must be made to be as profitable as possible. And according to the mantra of the free market, private ownership is the best route to add value, to make a space productive once more.  

Privatisation is proffered as the solution for how to improve quality of life. You can not open a newspaper without a story about the next calamity in the housing crisis, or how we are becoming more unequal, yet these are signals of a much deeper problem. London is living through a period of rapid enclosure: the spaces where we live our everyday lives are being measured, given a value, and sold to the highest bidder. This process of financialisation and privatisation turns a universal common wealth into a portfolio of assets, to be traded in a global market. This process has seeped into every corner of the city. It defines who is allowed to be part of the metropolis; it affects our relationships with each other, the places where we come together: home, work, public spaces and the corners that we hope to keep private.

In the end, the damage of this rampant enclosure is not to the fabric of the city but, more urgently, to us.

Growing inequality – unlike what Boris said – does not inspire innovation, but rather has a devastating impact on health, and the loss of trust that makes a city work. As the spaces of the city becomes divided, enclosed and privatised, so this has a damaging effect on how we live together. The loss of public space where we can come together, we lose the chance to become citizens, and this also have an effect on our creativity.  

These things are all connected by one question – that you must ask yourself as you start your campaign: who is London for? This is the key question as rich foreigners continue to invest in London real estate and never visit while at the same time thousands of families are forced to move out of the city by the very councils that were created to protect them. In April this was announced that 50,000 families had been sent out of the city since 2011. For others, the cost of living is becoming impossible as rents continue to rise as private landowners take more and more of the city.

Who is London For? This question sets out a commitment to a certain idea of the city? It forces us to consider the question of belonging – as a home, a social community, a place of potential flourishing, a set of behaviours that define citizenship. We must consider:

  • A place that is open to all.
  • A space of common wealth: a place that can be shared by all, for all.
  • a more social urbanism: where the city is designed and planned around people who live there rather than the other way around.

From this vital question, we can then consider the values that we believe make up a fairer city: equality, trust and sustainability.

Without a consideration of this social urbanism we can not really start to think – and rethink – the way the city runs: housing, transit, innovation and work, health and policing. It will help us understand how technology might be used to make the city more efficient rather than falling for the unthinking seductions of the smart city, or the internet of things. Undoubtedly, these innovations will change the city but they do not make up the city: we do.

In your campaign, start here. It will not provide every answer but it offers an idea of the city that can be good for us all. Thus we must always keep the key question: who is London for.

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