For generations, many people living outside the world’s major urban centers have dreamed of moving to the city and making it big. In Britain today, however, that dream may be dying.
The Centre for London, an urban think tank, recently surveyed U.K. residents who live outside the capital city about their attitudes toward London. One revealing question asked respondents to what extent they thought living and working in London was a “realistic option” for people like them. The answers were pretty stark. Only 3 percent of respondents thought it was “very realistic” that they could live in London, and just 12 percent more thought it was “fairly” realistic. By contrast, 78 percent thought it was unrealistic. If London thinks of itself as a land of opportunity, it’s clear that this view is not shared by other people in the country it governs.
Tantalizingly, the report does not explicitly spell out why so few non-Londoners feel the city is not an option for them. Its other questions do nonetheless provide some pointers and rule out a few myths along the way.
For a start, it seems London isn’t quite as disliked as it might fear. Neither the place nor its people get terrible ratings. A majority—56 percent—said they were proud of the capital, while 77 percent thought the city contributed either “a lot” or “a fair amount” to the country’s economy. And while a substantial 29 percent of respondents thought Londoners were arrogant, a larger 41 percent chose the more positive-leaning adjective “diverse” to describe Londoners.
The report also suggests that attitudes were softer and more positive among people who knew the city better. People who visited London at least once a year were 7 percent less likely to call its residents arrogant, 7 percent more likely to find them friendly, and 10 percent more likely to describe them as normal. Then again, it’s also possible that the more negative views among less frequent visitors could reflect people who came once, felt they got the measure of the place, and vowed not to return.
Some grounds for resenting the city did emerge elsewhere in the survey. While a large majority felt that the city benefited the national economy as a whole, most people didn’t see London’s economy contributing much, if anything, to the specific region they lived in. Even in Southern England, a region served by an overspill of businesses from the capital, 54 percent of people thought London’s economy contributed little or nothing at all to their local area. In other regions, the percentage that thought London contributed little or nothing was much higher, ranging between 71 and 78 percent.
One might assume that sentiment could provide an incentive for people to move, to head to Britain’s biggest city in hope of grabbing their own slice of the pie. So why do so many think it’s not an option? The likely—arguably obvious—reason lies elsewhere in the survey. Asked to choose an adjective to describe the city, 47 percent opted for “expensive.” Shortly following it at 43 percent came the word “crowded.”
They are, of course, right. While London salaries are higher on average than elsewhere in the U.K., higher local costs, especially rent, mean that Londoners often struggle to cover the basics, or at least have little disposable income left over once they do. Those high costs end up jamming more people into smaller homes. While London isn’t actually the U.K.’s least affordable city when you compare salaries to property prices—that honor goes to nearby Oxford—finding affordable housing in the city is a special headache, even as the housing crisis spreads its tentacles across other cities.
This, it seems, is the rolling effect of the housing crisis. It’s not just that people living in cities are struggling. People see that struggle from afar and decide it would prove too much for them—that in some way, a door has closed. Seen in that light, perhaps the report’s most striking aspect is that the non-Londoners who deemed the city expensive and crowded seem to know the city so well.