Is London too much? Four centuries of debate

King James I lamented in the early seventeenth century: “soon London will be all England”. Then, as now, London’s population growth was both driven by and drove the capital’s economic prosperity. Before the end of the century, arguments would appear for what we would now call the ‘re-balancing’ of the country’s economy and population : 

“Now as to the Grandour of London. Would not England be easier and perhaps stronger if these vitals were more equally dispersed? Is there not a Tumour in that place, and too much matter for mutiny and Terrour for the Government  if it should Burst? Is there not too much of our Capital in one stake, liable to the Ravage of Plague and fire?…Will not the resort of the Wealthy and emulation to Luxury melt down the order of Superiors among and bring all towards Levelling and Republican?”

This was written by Robert Southwell to Sir William Petty in 1686, one of the many  fascinating extracts and fragments of how contemporary observers saw the coming of the Maxine age in Humphrey Jennings’ marvellous ‘Pandemonium’. Southwell’s argument across four centuries sounds some very contemporary concerns: regional inequalities; threats to resilience, both natural and man-made; conspicuous consumption by the ‘1%’.

Moreover, as the historian Richard Olson points out,  Southwell was responding to an essay by Petty in which he argued that by 1800, London’s population would rise to 5 million, exceeding that of the rest of England.

Hence, both London’s pre-eminence, and the debate on whether this is beneficial or the opposite, has  persisted for four centuries. That suggests to me that the issue will not be resolved any time soon. As a policy-maker, the more salient issue for me is how to craft a set of national policies which both support London’s growth and dynamism, and also use this asset to the benefit of the whole of the UK. 

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