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Old London died 50 years ago

Paul Finch
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Paul Finch looks back on 50 years of ‘Greater London’

I have been thinking about anniversaries, prompted by the marvellous book by Tony Travers, London’s Boroughs at 50 (Biteback Publishing), which reminds us about the circumstances in which modern London was created via legislation in 1963, implemented in 1966, which created the capital we know and (sort of) love today.

In some ways that legislation, implemented by Tories desperate to end the Labour monopoly of London governance exercised for nearly 100 years, marked the end of London as we knew it. When I was a child the London County Council was what counted. The replacement Greater London Council included the Inner London Education Authority as a memory of the old regime and the old inner London area, which constituted what I still think of as real London.

What London has lost is its old sense of identity

Old London died 50 years ago: forget Finsbury, Marylebone, Tottenham, Holborn, Battersea, Woolwich and so on. Hello to monster boroughs like Haringey, Wandsworth and bloated Westminster. Forget local communities, local town halls and local democracy; forget rational borough boundaries based on parishes and an engrained history of centuries. Say hello to Modern Conservatism, whose reckless destruction of English county boundaries and identities ran parallel to the homogenisation of a great capital city. Forget Marylebone County Council. So inconvenient.

The creation of New London had some advantages, but the new orthodoxy didn’t last long, with the GLC abolished under prime minister Thatcher, the ILEA thrown on the scrapheap, County Hall sold off to Japanese speculators, and a once-great architects’ department unceremoniously dismantled. The late Francis Golding’s dictum, that ‘improvements’ in British public life are frequently the prelude to abolition, proved all too true.

It was left to Tony Blair to restore a form of democracy to London government, with his commitment (fulfilled) to revive the GLC and create a mayor. Lucky Ken Livingstone, who succeeded to the task despite temporary expulsion from the Labour Party. And in a sense lucky London, since Livingstone’s campaign was based on a vision about the future of a world city promoted by Richard Rogers. The mayor was generous enough to acknowledge publicly the significance of his architectural and planning ideas on the occasion of Richard’s Pritzker Prize ceremony.

The history of London under Livingstone and his successors has been mixed. We still have an acute housing shortage despite the myriads of speeches from politicians and functionaries saying all is under control when it quite clearly is nothing of the sort. On the other hand Transport for London has proved to be seriously far-sighted in its planning for the capital’s infrastructure below ground, even if it is a total disaster on the roads – another story entirely.

What London has lost is its old sense of identity, except where it has bubbled up, ignoring the map-lines of 1966: let’s hear it for Shoreditch and Clapham and Clerkenwell and Highgate – and anywhere with a postal address more revealing than the crude boundary impositions of the 1960s political modernisers.

To understand London you need to understand the difference between inner and outer, different in history, density, attitudes and culture. Those obsessed with housing density always criticise London for not being like Paris. But if you look at densities in inner London as opposed to outer, you get a different story. Density depends on where you draw the line. Similarly, the vast swathes of South London with little access to the Underground need to be understood as products of geology rather than planning.

It is an irony that, despite all the talk of connectivity and communication, there has been no new central London vehicle bridge built for more than a century. Those crossings that do connect north and south are being littered with bus and cycle lanes, apparently designed to continue the north-south apartheid which has characterised for far too long planning attitudes in what is supposed to be a world city.

London Boroughs at 50

London Boroughs at 50


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