Summer in the city is a great time to amble around the streets of the capital. You can take your time, looking up and around rather than hurrying, head bowed against the dark and the rain. The pace slows, and errands become less a chore, more a pleasure.
Except for the tourists. I know that London’s streets, at any time of year, are an obstacle course of language students, snap-happy east Asians and shopaholic Europeans, but the summer transforms the steady-state congestion into gridlock. I retain a residual politeness, despite a decade and a half in the city, and my instinctive reaction to someone pointing a camera across a pavement, to where their friend is leaning out of a red phone box or grinning in front of Big Ben, is to try to not get in the shot. There are parts of London where this can double the distance you have to walk.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I know that tourists are an important part of London’s economy, bringing in valuable money to keep the shops and cafes and theatres in business. I also appreciate that visitor overload is the price you pay for living in the greatest city on the face of the earth: you can’t keep all this to yourself.
Longer term migrants also are inevitable in, and vital to, a world class city like this. Cities were ever thus. Migrants bring enormous economic benefits, of course; but, moreover, London is the interesting and vibrant place that it is because of in-migration, layer upon layer of it. It’s not just the food and the festivals, like last month’s Anatolian Cultural Fete in N16’s Clissold Park, all whirling dervishes and börek. The creativity and innovation that diversity brings is the life-blood of London’s dynamism: the immense contribution of migrants to the intellectual life of Britain is the subject of a seminar next week.
None of this is to deny the downside to migration, the costs of which tend to fall on those least able to bare them, simply to restate what is blindingly obvious to me: not only is London a better place because of migrants, there simply wouldn’t be a recognisable London without them.
It would be impossible for me to think otherwise. I am, after all, an economic migrant myself, abandoning my tatty Midlands town for the city’s economic, social and cultural opportunities. More than that, I’m a migrant who won’t assimilate: during my time here, I have been part of the gentrification of two north London working class neighbourhoods, a drain on community resources such as affordable housing and fundamentally altering the cultural make-up of each through my inexplicable preference for organic vegetables. Incomers like me have made both Crouch End and Stoke Newington unrecognisable to their original inhabitants.
So Government plans to artificially limit in-migration, rather than addressing the disbenefits directly, can only impoverish the city: hence the unease of the CBI, the universities, and even the Conservative Mayor. London became and remains great because of the steady flow of industriousness, creativity and energy brought by incomers. As for the tourists, I’d rather they just wired the money over directly.