The death of cities? No. But it's the people stupid...

Posted on November 04, 2016

copyright Louise Kelly

London Skyline

Stephen Bediako

More and more of us are choosing to live in cities. Right now, over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, with – according to the UN – another 2.5 billion people set to join them by 2050.

Yet, despite this trend, as Alex Ferguson used to say about the end of the football season, I feel it’s 'squeaky bum' time for cities across the world – especially London.

For me, that’s why it’s important we, finally, have a Mayor committed to driving a progressive and inclusive agenda for London and its people, especially those who are on low incomes.

Why? Because these are the people – the cleaners, new graduates, hotel workers, admin officers, market traders, artists, manual workers… (I could go on) – holding us and our city up, and we must start addressing the inequalities they experience. Especially, those who are recent immigrants or come from more disadvantaged communities. 

Our challenge

In a lot of ways, I epitomise the challenge London faces. Well-heeled, well-educated, selling research papers, ideas and insights, and all the while probably living better than teachers and nurses.

Something has to change, and fast, or London risks becoming a city that’s unaffordable and out of reach for those who earn less than £30,000 a year.

This matters, because so much of what makes – and has always made – this city great are the opportunities it offers people, from diverse backgrounds, income brackets and cultures to build a life here. We live and work shoulder-to-shoulder every day and, if we lose that, we lose London.

It’s time for all of us, individuals and organisations alike, across sectors, to act. Together, we need to do what is necessary to help more people in this fantastic city to thrive, not just survive, and make London a beacon for truly progressive thinking across the country.

Here are the four main things, I think, we need to do to make that happen.

We are more than just hard-working families

Firstly, we need London’s big organisations, whether it’s the NHS, Transport for London or FTSE 500 companies, to go further and support low paid workers, entrepreneurs and others working in the gig economy with housing, transport and non-work experience and insight.

As human beings, we each have our own individual place in the world – and organisations should be interested, even involved, in our lives beyond our ability to deliver corporate value.

That’s not to say, however, that this involvement/support should always be on the relevant organisation’s terms.

The work of Baljeet Sandhu looks at the role of ‘lived experience’ and its value in society. She argues that for too long we have dismissed those who have come through adversity and are still standing (“too risky”, “don't understand them”, “this doesn't fit with my experience of growing up”), rather than embrace their skills and insight to add value to our amazing city. For me, it’s an argument that makes economic, as well as moral sense.

If employers continue to ignore the material and psychological existence of their low-paid workers, these employees will be forced to move away from London to save money. This means a longer commute, which leads to tiredness and dissatisfaction - with the higher transport costs and longer journey times taking their toll.

In addition, with Brexit looming, employers won’t be able to rely so much on new arrivals being prepared to 'rough it' as a long-term solution, for example, sharing cramped, overcrowded housing and working seven days a week to afford their rent.

Not everyone can afford a race to the top

Secondly, many of us who grow up in, or come to, this city dream of making it big. That kind of ambition is important, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse by those in power not to provide the support everyone needs to get on in life, such as access to a good education, affordable housing and fair wages.

Growing up in East London, I now understand what I saw in the eighties and nineties - the destruction of a proud working class community.

Back then, I did paper rounds, worked the markets, and experienced all the joys and pains of being a working class East End boy. I got to experience drugs and alcohol early, as well as death and crime early too.

But I also acquired a host of skills and insight related to living a meagre existence in this city, which gave me the grit to pursue my goals. 

The value of experience

Many don’t get that chance now. Instead, they’re too quickly written off as scroungers, benefit cheats, gang members or troubled teens.

The reality is not everyone is born studious or work ready. People progress at different paces and do different things with their lives. We should work with, and find, the good in that. Not punish people for it.

Writing people off like this is also warping our larger view of what a successful city looks like – risk averse, clean, predictable and fueled by consumption. It isn’t realistic or sustainable. Most importantly, it wastes the potential of thousands of people whose creativity, ideas and talent could fuel London’s future global success.

We might all be in a global race, but a lot of people are still struggling to reach the starting line and deserve a fair standard of living. 

Power beyond Whitehall

Thirdly, we need more organisations in every sector, including business, to recognise that power is increasingly being devolved to our regions and cities. City Mayors and leaders are not just gaining traction or popular appeal, but also becoming serious leaders in their own right, influencing and driving the policy context of organisations’ operations. 

London and its mayoral position has had a huge impact on the city - whether it is in housing, cycle lanes, public transport, safety through policing and the development of vibrant communities.

It is an approach that is spreading. I recently did some work focused on employability issues with Birmingham Council and local youth providers. The city has real potential, with one authority, an incoming Mayor and a genuine commitment to raise Birmingham's profile. Crucially, this city’s ambition isn’t just owned by its local politicians. I've seen its biggest businesses, including Barclays, Selfridges and Jaguar, get involved too.

We need more businesses and organisations to act like that, operating as corporate citizens in the cities they serve and putting the interests of local people and communities at the heart of their business plans. Their input and support is also needed to help cities highlight their population’s needs, challenges and opportunities to central government.

Connected Cities

Soon, we’ll have a new Mayor in Manchester too, alongside Liverpool and Bristol – increasing the scope for our major cities to work together and thrive alongside London.

Let’s be clear, I’m a Londoner, and will always believe in and fight for a strong London. But, for too long, we’ve allowed our capital to dominate. Now more than ever that needs to change. In the face of Brexit, we’re stronger working together.

So finally, this calls for an increasing number of joint initiatives between London, Birmingham, Manchester and other cities, and their biggest employers. Barclays, Tesco, Pret A Manger, Timpson, NHS, government departments, the police and more - all have space and employees across our cities.

In London, I’m hopeful that the Mayor will act to ensure London holds on to its risk-taking, diverse, little bit gritty, and people and experience-led nature.

But I sense time is running out here and elsewhere. The clock is ticking, costs rising and the pressures of living increasing. Together we need to set out a vision for London and the UK’s other major cities’ success, and act to help everyone, regardless of income, thrive in the years to come.