Monday, 24 January 2011

Letter from London, January 2011

This month's London overview from Paul Coleman, London correspondent.

The year 2011 began with Mayor Boris Johnson announcing that visitors to London will see a huge, aqua-marine blue cockerel placed on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. 
I suppose the mega-cockerel confirms London welcomes bizarre artistic ideas. An assessment of world cities by British Council researchers declared London is the most "open" city, even ahead of New York, chiefly because the capital's businesses find it easy to hire foreign labour. 
   Migrants enjoy good health services and education, the researchers claimed. London is also relatively safe. Many Londoners aren't convinced though about the dubious benefits of foreign labour - as it's mainly cheap labour. 
   Foreign or home-grown bankers in the City of London are also bagging further huge bonuses despite creating havoc throughout the economy thanks to their irresponsible institutional gambling with our deposits. Instead of making the bankers pay for the massive budget deficit they've caused, a coalition government is making ordinary people pay through imminent public spending cuts to education, health and police services. 
    Unemployment is rising. Workers over 50 are already being culled at a faster rate than their younger counterparts by many of London's 32 boroughs. Businesses can't take on new staff as the banks, bailed out by taxpayers, are refusing to extend new or existing credit.
   The coalition's health 'reforms' are set to prise open the fragile yet beloved National Health Service to unfettered price competition by private suppliers and to European Union competition law. Some fear state-run hospitals will go bust.
   Decent homes are priced beyond the range of most working people. Few socially rented homes are being built. Private rents are rising. Tenants seek flatmates through 'speed flat-mating'. Hostels face closure. More homeless people struggle against the winter cold on West End streets outside properties owned by over-leveraged mortgagees who can no longer repay their colossal loans.
Is London safe? Yes, definitely, on most streets, in most areas. However, counter-terrorist sources inside Britain's security services, based at Thames House, raised the terror threat level to "severe", implying a terror attack is "highly likely". A friend of mine said he wouldn't be taking his family to Stratford in 2012 to watch any of the Olympic Games as he fears a terror attack. 
   Nagging doubts like these are fuelled by the ongoing inquest into the terror attacks on 7 July 2005. Police constable Christopher Mitchell recalled making a makeshift splint for Mark Beck, who lost his right leg in the Tavistock Square bomb blast that killed 13 people and the bomber. "We used Sellotape and some bits of wood we found on the road," said Mitchell.
   Don't get the wrong idea. Life in London in 2011 trundles on offering equal measures of typical hum-drum routine and famous vibrancy. Tourists crowd the sightseeing hot spots. Pubs and clubs remain lively. However, it's the future, both immediate and long-term, that worries most people. 
   As for Boris' cockerel - well, the big bird won't be plinthed until 2013. By that time, Boris himself might be politically cock-a-doodle-dooed. Boris seems to be running with the foxes and hunting with the hounds, trying to be seen to speak up for London whilst cringing to doff a boffish cap to his axe-wielding coalition government allies. Ken Livingstone, London's inaugural mayor and Boris' arch-rival, has already started campaigning in south London's suburbs for next year's mayoral election. 
   Apparently, the cockerel doesn't reflect our 'true blue' Tory Mayor but symbolises  'regeneration, awakening and strength'. If 2011 does prove to be the year of savage cuts, London's economy and social fabric will need much regeneration and strengthening over the next ten years.

Paul Coleman, London, January 2011

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