Leading Article: No longer the place for clever Dicks

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The Independent Online
IN THE mid-Eighties, the age of the yuppie, the Filofax and the champagne bottle, it was possible to believe that the streets of London really were paved with gold. Not entirely in a metaphorical sense either. There seemed no end to the surge in the value of property in London and the South-east: owner-occupiers boasted of how their houses 'earned' them more in a week than they drew in salary cheques; Southerners visited Doncaster and smugly noted that they could buy up whole terraces of houses if they sold the semi-

detached in Tooting; sages foresaw a new super-rich rentier class, bloated on the capital realised from property they bought or inherited from their parents, employing retinues of nannies, cleaners, cooks and other servants in Islington and Richmond.

Even then, there was a down side to life in the South-east. Most forms of public service in London and the Home Counties were tatty and neglected; life on the streets was nasty, brutish and best kept short. Public transport was overcrowded and inefficient. The roads were so congested that a weekday journey across the capital was no faster than in Victorian times. State schools were notoriously delapidated and short of teachers. Access to GPs and other primary health care was poor compared with other regions. Streets were litter-strewn, pavements cracked, roads potholed. Air pollution was so bad that, during long periods of still summer weather, people with respiratory problems were advised not to go out. None of these aspects of the quality of life has greatly improved; many have deteriorated. For example, the clear-up rate for crimes is well below the average for the country throughout London and its commuterland. Between 1985 and 1990, moreover, the increase in crime in the Home Counties was well above the national average.

Some people argued that the real value of living in or around London was the social and cultural life: the theatres, the art galleries, the concert halls, the museums, the restaurants, the clubs, the parties. But the London of the Eighties was not the London of the Sixties. In any case, the advent of the motorway and inter-city rail and the parallel deterioration in commuter transport made an evening in the West End as accessible from Sheffield or Cardiff as from some of the more remote corners of Network SouthEast. The point of living in the South-east was to consume; the dominant culture was economic avarice, the most important art form the conspicuous display of power and success.

Now, for the first time in a century, the South-east is set to become what pre-war governments called a distressed area. Its raison d'etre has disappeared in what is almost a cultural as well as an economic implosion. Talk of accumulating capital has been replaced by talk of negative equity, with a million people, nearly all in the South-east, owning homes worth less than the value of their mortgages. London is littered with office blocks that nobody wants to sell or lease. The financial services industries - the bedrock of the South-eastern economy - are shrinking fast, leaving their ex-yuppie employees to face as bleak a future as the redundant steelmen and shipyard workers of another era. According to the latest unemployment figures, 9.2 per cent of the workforce in the South-east is unemployed, a proportion higher than that in the East Midlands and only fractionally lower than in Wales and Scotland. Unemployment in Greater London, indeed, is already, at 10.4 per cent, well above the national average and on a par with that in the West Midlands and the North- west of England.

THERE IS one more cruel twist. Estimates for the new council tax, which will be levied from next April, show that South-eastern households will pay substantially more than those in other areas - an average of pounds 780 in Greater London against pounds 480 in, for example, the North. Assessments for the new tax, based on the value of people's homes, will not take full account of recent decline. Thus, after incurring ruinous debts to buy houses that proved depreciating assets, the beleaguered residents of the South-east find that ownership of those houses requires them to pay higher taxes for inferior public services.

None of which will cause tears to flow on the Trent, the Dee or the Clyde. Citizens residing north of Watford Gap may observe that it was not they who sustained in office the architects of these present economic disasters. And perhaps it will do them good in the stockbroker belt to get a taste of the economic decline that has been familiar to the industrial north for more than half a century. But, against schadenfreude, however justifiable, should be set a few cautionary notes.

First, more than a quarter of the UK's population lives in the South-east. Unless its confidence is restored, any upturn in consumer spending will be too weak to sustain economic recovery. And politicians, who look forward to company directorships and House of Lords allowances, and Whitehall civil servants, who look forward to index- linked pensions, scarcely understand the psychological effect on thousands of ordinary people of learning that their homes are worth less (or scarcely more) than they owe. Such people have discovered what they had never thought possible: that, in security for the future, they are worse off than their parents or grandparents who kept by a little in a Post Office savings account. Even once they have liquidated their debts, their future spending habits will be cautious.

Second, Britain has no alternative to the South-east. For better or worse, no other region, for the foreseeable future, can compete with the rest of Europe as a home for the expanding financial and information services industries. London competes as a magnet for money and talent, British as well as foreign, with the great European cities. If it can offer neither quality of life nor economic vitality, it will fail. The Whittingtons of the future will not, alas, turn away to try their luck in Birmingham or Newcastle, but will go on to Paris, Berlin, Milan or Barcelona.