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London may be cramped, but it is overflowing with ideas

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A few weeks ago London was buzzing with branding: '2012: Back the Bid', a huge advertising campaign, excitement and contrasting reflections. Many of the latter were offered at the Future of London festival.

The organiser and chairman, the AJ's Austin Williams, said the question 'What is London?' is the 'Millennial quinquennial question'.

My reflections raised uncomfortable thoughts. London is three unplanned cities (Westminster, Southwark and the City) that have swallowed up towns and villages.

It has a labyrinthine leadership structure - the Greater London Authority, the London Development Agency, boroughs, Transport for London, English Partnerships, and other forms of visible and invisible partnership covering everything from river to rail. It has poor infrastructure and traffic lights phased to increase congestion and tax revenue.

London is fantastically expensive, which makes travel a joy because absence makes you richer. It expands, yet is strangled by a green belt. It sucks up intellectual resources, yet exploits an underclass of lowly paid workers. It is a city divided: we gate them in or out depending on our politics and prejudice.

Denuded of industry, it relies on that great South Sea Bubble of an idea, knowledge culture, and is misled by a vast 'quangocracy'.

How has this come to be? I return to the denial of Wren's Great Plan by the merchants restaking their property in the embers of the Great Fire. There was no grand plan, indeed there was no plan at all. London got party walls, building acts and a romantic vision.

A net cast over constraining commercial development, pierced only by dome and spires: mythical London with religion triumphing over commerce, portrayed in contemporary engravings from an unavailable view in the sky. And that is it.

London is a city of limited visions and few great boulevards, but many laws on light and walls, privacy and overlooking, sound and dirt. Visions that cut across London are denied by parochial politics: the last great legislation comprised the Acts of demolition, allowing trains to come to town. We cannot stack up a layered city, even if attractive, because funding models cannot cope.

Some people so love the chaos that is the capital that they conserve it and acclaim it as 'townscape'. The remarkable thing is not that we build well or badly, but that we build at all. London is a city of constraint, not design, where each project is taxed to fund each random, yet particular, improvement. So building in floodplains bereft of infrastructure becomes a tax-avoidance 'idea'.

As London is such an ill-considered city, why is it that, of all the cities bidding for the urban panacea of the 2012 Olympics, we need such heavy advertising and promotion to encourage us to back the bid? Surely we should jump at the chance. The answer is that London, because of all of the above, is very big, often bad, but has its own beauty. The 'worse' it gets, the more people pour in to live and carve out an identity, as they have done for 2,000 years. Paris, Rome, Berlin and Madrid are, by comparison, little more than suburban zoos - fixed, designed and complete. Only squalid New York competes.

London is whatever the individual makes of or takes from it. London has the intellectual capacity of its ever-shifting populace.

To understand London I recommend only one book, Sasek's 1959 children's classic, This is London, a tale of an anarchic working city, of use and misuse. Much has changed, but it is recognisably, uniquely London. In need of visions and intelligence, but never self-interest and exclusion: a city of ideas triumphing over constraint. The more they legislate, the more we overcome. London: always in need of infrastructure, never short of ideas.

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