Hugh Smith

24 year old Londoner. I graduated from a university. There was a ceremony.

November 9, 2012 at 4:57pm

Let us live in London

From the New York Times, Mayor Bloomberg wants to build:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wants to overhaul these rules so that buildings in Midtown Manhattan can soar as high as those elsewhere. New towers could eventually cast shadows over landmarks across the area, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. They could rise above the 59-story MetLife Building and even the 77-story Chrysler Building.

The initiative would, in some cases, allow developers to build towers twice the size now permitted in the Grand Central area. The owner of the 19-story Roosevelt Hotel at Madison and 45th Street could replace it with a 58-story tower under the proposed rules. Current regulations permit no more than 30 floors.

There can’t be many visitors to New York City who come away with the impression that what Manhattan needs is more tall buildings, and yet that is what Manhattan is going to get if Bloomberg gets his way. Or more accurately, if the market gets its way.

The demand to live and work on the island, and in nearby spots like Brooklyn, is sky-high. The choice for the city is to either: do nothing and watch prices get even further out of reach even for people who’d be considered wealthy if they lived anywhere else; or to let those people live in the city, and make their contribution to the life and prosperity of the city. It is a choice between banishing people to the suburbs, or even to more affordable cities such as those in the Sun Belt (e.g. Houston), or making room for those people.

London faces a similar choice. Although it does not have New York City’s geographic limitations - there is no equivalent to the island of Manhattan - large areas of its inner core have long seen crazily high property prices, and more of the surrounding ‘Zone 2’ neighbourhoods are being put out of reach. Most of the property-buying happening in the city is being done by foreigners, which isn’t a bad thing in itself but becomes problematic when the supply of new housing is not even close to keeping up with demand.

London is different from New York in many ways, and in one particular way relevant to this subject: London status relative to the rest of the UK’s cities. New York may feel like the centre of the world, but it isn’t the centre of the US. It has rival centres of power and prosperity that have their own specialities and unique attractions. But Britain doesn’t have any cities that can compare to London in size and opportunity terms. It is the centre of the country. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, perhaps an unhealthy one. The issue of how other British cities can compete with the capital is for another piece. 

In the meantime London should think selfishly: it must do everything it can to continue to act as a magnet for people. This includes building homes for them to live in. At the moment, the city is miserably failing to keep up even with current demand for new housing, let alone outstrip demand to lower the barrier to entry in the property market. Combined with the post-crisis era of conservative mortgage offering, current housing policy is likely to leave greater numbers of young people off the property ladder, stuck with paying unnecessarily high rents for the foreseeable future.

London may not face much competition from other British cities at the moment, but it does have to compete with other major international cities, and it should act accordingly. At the moment every high rise development (in London terms, above 15-20 stories) is assumed to be a secret plot to destroy the city’s character, and  garners opposition from coalitions of NIMBYs with platforms on quangos, charities and local and national newspapers. To remain a relevant world city we must reverse the assumption that development is bad; a blocked or shortened skyscraper should be the exception, not the norm. The Inner London sky must be blotted out with cranes. Newspaper columnists will be assured that they can keep their gardens and garages, while the young and ambitious grab the chance to live at the centre of one of the greatest cities on earth.

September 19, 2012 at 7:19pm

Boris Revisited

A few months ago I decided that I wanted to write more, regardless of what I’m doing for a living at any given time. Related to this I made a second decision: that any political writing I do should contain bold predictions that were likely to make me look like a prophet or an idiot a couple of years down the line. This was why I started telling anyone who’d listen that Boris Johnson will never be elected prime minister, and laid out my theory - which is not based on the fact that Boris comes across as unserious - in a column-sized post.

But where does my Boris hypothesis stand months later?

We’ve held an incredibly successful summer of Olympic and Paralympic games, which went off with hardly a hitch to be seen. We’ve also seen David Cameron’s authority eroded within his own party, a development not entirely coincidental to the sight of Johnson striding the world stage as the leader of its greatest city, his popularity with Londoners reaching new heights undreamed of by any Tory since Churchill. Now this modern day conservative gentleman is preparing to go to war with his rival after years of them circling each other; battle will be entered on the fields of Heathrow and the Thames Estuary.

Of course, the last paragraph describes a scenario half of which exists in reality and half in the minds of Home Counties Conservatives who are sure, just certain, that the nation is crying out for a return to straightforward conservative values and policies. To be fair to Johnson, he was good value as London’s mayor this summer. He even gave a couple of rapturously-received, barnstorming speeches to crowds of frenzied Londonders. He has never seemed more like a leader than in those moments, especially when you consider how excruciatingly funny it would be for Cameron to attempt anything like it. It was genuinely great to see such passion from the mayor and the people, and enough for me to lay off the Boris-bashing for the duration of the games.

But his rhetorical tricks would have diminishing returns if repeated on daily or weekly on the national stage. And unfortunately for Johnson, his proudest moments this summer won’t live as long in our memories as the sight of him in Victoria Park, dangling stationary on a zip wire, two little union jacks in hand, desperately trying to laugh off his predicament while his advisors took thirty minutes to work out how to unstick him.

This is unfair. Johnson can find solace in the sense that our enjoyment of his misfortune was not particularly malicious, as it would be for another politician, but more of the “that’s our Boris!” variety. That he - a Tory - can live through a potentially lethally humilating internationally broadcast mid-air East London sojourn to still be talked of as a future prime minister is a testament to the unique position he has carved for himself in British politics. But the reaction to The Hoisting also serves to remind that this position, and his popularity, is of a very specific type: he is fun, cuddly and almost entirely lacking in publicly-stated controversial views that would make London liberals leery of voting for him.

May 8, 2012 at 12:44pm

Boris Johnson’s popularity explained

Boris’s popularity is usually taken as a given, and with good reason. He has managed to develop a persona almost unique to British politics: he’s seen as lovable, fun and a bit of a maverick. He is undoubtedly popular with lots of people outside of the narrow conservative base that his personal views would usually restrict his appeal to. 

Some commentators (see every Coffee House article posted in the last week) and Conservative backbenchers have long claimed Boris as a potential saviour for the Conservative party, and having had their beliefs confirmed by his reelection as London mayor their preparations for Boris’s coronation have begun in earnest.

My personal opinion of Boris is that he has done little of note with his four years at City Hall, and I don’t like the way people fall over themselves to defend him based on his personality, even when those people would be horrified if Boris’s “retro” views were turned into national policy. But this is neither here nor there: he can’t do much damage to London other than insufficient enthusiasm for transport projects, and people like him. That’s fine.

The problem for the conservative Boris fans is that this popularity is unique in British politics for a reason: Boris has had a unique career in British politics that has allowed him to avoid almost anything that would reduce his appeal across ideological lines. He writes jolly newspaper columns and came to national attention by displaying his brand of bumbling wit and charm on a comedy show, embracing the gentle mockery his persona attracted.

His time in Parliament saw him in two shadow roles. First, he was shadow minister for the arts under Michael Howard, a position practically made to avoid being stained by association with Michael Howard and his unpopular band of “nasty” Tories. His second shadow role was higher education, an assignment which lasted a year and a half in a period when David Cameron had just become party leader and was avoiding controversial policies like the plague.

In mid-2007 Boris was able to launch his mayoral campaign with no greater stain on his reputation than the odd city or country insulted in a Daily Telegraph column. And we can all see how he has cleverly put distance between himself and the Cameron government ever since the election, further avoiding association with the nastier side of the Conservative party. 

Boris’s popularity is intact because he has never had to take part in the national debate over issues that matter to everyone. If he wants to lead the Conservatives, and the nation, he will have to wade into that debate. If he chooses to do so, his personality will cease to be the advantage it has proved to be in London.