The capital’s growth – the number of residents is rising towards 10 million and beyond – is a measure of its economic and cultural success, but with that success comes challenges.
Commercial Street in London did not get its name by mistake. Connecting Whitechapel and Shoreditch, this avenue of enterprise is where the power of the City meets the energy and churn of the East End, and the districts that it serves contain vital clues about the causes and effects of the capital’s record-breaking population boom.
It will formally be announced that Greater London contains the largest number of people in its history. Its previous peak was 8.6 million, in 1939. The capital’s resilient, ravenous economy, its attractions for incomers, a rising birth rate and a falling death rate are all informing forecasts that the number could reach 10 million by 2030 and then go higher still.
But behind these headline numbers lie complex and varied patterns of demographic change, which do not support beliefs that foreign immigration accounts for all of the rise or for existing Londoners moving out. They also have big implications for how the capital will cope with such a vast citizenry in the future.
Commercial Street encapsulates the changing nature of Greater London. To one side of the street and stretching down to the Thames stand the gleaming towers of the Square Mile. Few were there before 1986, the year Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of financial markets created an economic convulsion. The upturn in the quantity of London’s human stock would soon begin.
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For Boris Johnson, that is no coincidence. “It was that 1980s boom in the City that financed the restaurants and the tapas bars and the arts world,” he enthused in a speech in 2013, describing Essex men and women mingling with suave American and European bankers. “It was that change in the quality of life in London that brought people back to the city.”
This sounds right to Michael Cassidy, former planning and then policy chair of the City of London Corporation. “We transformed the place,” he says. The continuing impact amazes him. “We knew it would revive London and draw people in. But we did not anticipate this.”
To the other side of Commercial Street lies an area where, for many, wealth is in less plentiful supply but where the number of people has grown fastest. The 2011 census recorded London’s highest 10-year population growth in Tower Hamlets, the core East End borough whose western border Commercial Street lines. Its neighbours, Hackney and Newham, came next.
Across Greater London as a whole the increase was 900,000, or 12%, since 2001, leaving the rest of England and Wales behind. Since 2008 the population has grown by more than 100,000 a year.
Commercial Street records some of the impacts of all this growth. Walk its length and the nouveau-retro consumer clamour almost overpowers as art galleries and polished restaurants compete for your appetites. The Golden Heart pub bridges past and present with its stout ads, digital nostalgia jukebox and newspaper cuttings about Tracey Emin, a noted patron. Old Spitalfields market, revamped and restored, does a nice line in the reconditioned past. Overheard conversation: “Does that Chelsea boot date from the late 50s or, would you say, early 60s?”
There are, though, some unmediated remnants of a former age. Behind the low-key façade of Banta Hosiery, Amrit Sokhal energetically runs a family business that his grandfather began after arriving from India around 60 years ago. “It’s got worse here in many ways,” he says. “It’s so much more expensive. There’s not much of the old rag trade left. A lot of the buildings have been converted into flats and bars. I’ve got twin boys, but I can’t see them taking the business on.”
Amrit was born in the East End but lives south of the river now. Demographic shift is part of London’s population story too – both its upturn and the slump that came before. The second world war started the decline, and the exit from London continued after evacuations and the Blitz, as those who reconstructed the country turned their attention to new towns.
In 1959 the Queen formally opened Stevenage New Town, the first in a Home Counties constellation. Most of the cheering residents who greeted her had been lured there from such places as Tottenham and Islington. By 1980 Greater London as a whole held 6.8 million people and falling. The ensuing recovery took many in authority as much by surprise as had the size of the preceding dip. They adapted, though: come the 1990s, a rising population was widely agreed to be a sign of a city that was thriving.
Year after year, London’s “natural change” – the difference between the number of births and the number of deaths – has accounted for the bulk of the overall increase in humankind in the metropolis. London babies are in plentiful supply – in 2012/13, 131,000 of them emerged, an output not seen since the swinging mid-60s. At the same time, fewer deaths are taking place in the capital than in the past: less than 50,000 per annum in recent years, continuing a decades-old downward trend.
This confounds assumptions that the capital’s enlarging head count is directly due to foreigners moving in. It is correct that greater numbers have been arriving from other countries than have been going the other way. But it is also the case – and has been for many decades – that greater numbers of people have been moving out of London to other parts of the UK than vice versa. The combined effect of both sorts of migration – internal and international – has added to the population total in most years since 1990. But even the biggest inflows have been dwarfed by the ranks of new Londoners delivered by stork.
What the migration patterns also reveal, though, is turnover and demographic change. More than a third (37%) of Londoners were born overseas, a figure that both enthrals and appals, (though note that mayor Johnson, for example, was born in the USA, perhaps the one thing he has in common with Bruce Springsteen).
Figures as politically different as the former Tory MP Lord Coe and the former Labour London mayor Ken Livingstone have identified the city’s profound cosmopolitanism as a virtue, notably when promoting the 2012 Olympics. Johnson has boasted that he is practically unique in speaking positively of foreign incomers.
Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, has taken a different view, claiming that immigrants have made London overcrowded. He was perhaps unaware that the place was as full before the war as it is now, before foreign migrants began settling in significant numbers.
When the last census showed there had been a large exodus of white Britons it was interpreted by some as an example of “white flight” from ethnic and cultural diversity. However, an exhaustive study by Birkbeck college academics found that this was seemed not to be the case.
Those concerned that the high number of Londoners who weren’t born in the UK threaten the British way of life might draw comfort from the way many have embraced the tradition of relocating from the centre to the suburbs. Khayer Chowdhury was born in Tower Hamlets to Bangladeshi parents 25 years ago but is now a resident of Redbridge, an outer London borough. One-quarter of its territory comprises forests and parks. Three-quarters of its homes are owner-occupied. Chowdhury, his three siblings and his mum and dad now live in one of them.
“I loved the community spirit on the estate we lived in the East End,” he says, “but we needed more space and tranquillity.” Once, the whole Chowdhury family lived in a two-bedroom council flat. Then they bought a three-bedroom home locally before making their big move in 2010, acquiring a wide front drive and a big garden.
In doing so, they were part of a rapid demographic shift in Redbridge that saw its number of residents grow from 240,000 in 2001 to 300,000 in 2011. Its ethnic composition has altered, with the proportion of white Britons falling and its various minorities making up 57.5% of the whole. Londoners of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent are the largest of those groups.
“For Ron Jeffries, aged 81, a former magistrate and a Redbridge resident all his life, the change in ethnic mix is very positive: “I think it’s a tremendous thing for the borough.”. He is, though, concerned about over-development: “I like it that I live five minutes from a field. I’m also worried that we’re bursting at the seams.” A resident of Aldborough Hatch on the semi-rural north-east edge of Greater London, Ron says he loves travelling into the city’s heart using his Freedom Pass, but doesn’t want it to devour where he lives: “I’m afraid that Redbridge might become built up like an inner city area.””
London’s population boom is a measure of its economic and cultural success, but with that success comes challenges. The unaffordability of housing has moved up the political agenda. Demand for transport capacity, schools and health care provision continues to grow: Michael Cassidy, nowadays a non-executive director of Crossrail, confirms Transport for London’s view that the new line will be packed as soon it opens in 2018. When the new record population is formally announced next month, London’s mayor will link it to his latest appeal for more investment in the capital to keep the UK strong. Everyone has that number 10 million in their minds. How much higher might it go?
The thing is, a lot of people like it here. Mariana Finazzi, born in Brazil, a teacher in Lewisham and a mother of two and resident of Hackney, came to London in 2008 and now finds it hard to imagine moving away. “I don’t feel like an outsider here,” she says. “Professionally, the city had embraced me. Where else would I be made so welcome?”
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.