London's led a relatively charmed life, facing challenges in the past but always overcoming them. Even after the plagues, the Great Fire of London and the Blitz bombings, the city carried on. Spiralling property prices and the uncertainties stemming from Brexit are small fry in comparison. The economy remains buoyant despite the weak pound, new buildings are vying for attention on the skyline, and major investments have been made in public transport.
Going Up & Up & Up
Racing to the end of the 2010s, London is a city in transition. What was once a relatively low-level place has soared ever upwards. For many years vertical growth was contained to the City of London and Canary Wharf in the Docklands. At present some 435 buildings of over 20 storeys are in the pipeline – double the amount of just two years before – and most are in East London, the Greenwich Peninsula and the South Bank. Only time will tell how the city responds. Keeping pace with the rising skyline until recently were property prices, which increased at eye-watering rates for the better part of two decades. London remains one of the world’s most expensive cities in which to buy a property, but with Brexit uncertainty, price rises have stalled or dipped, especially at the very top end and in central London. Conditions for poorer Londoners living in inadequate housing were brought into sharp focus by a 2017 fire in West London's Grenfell Tower, which killed 72 people, mainly council tenants.
Out the Door
Arguably the topic of the moment is Brexit, the UK’s departure from the EU, which was approved by the electorate in a June 2016 referendum and is scheduled to take effect in March 2019 (unless there's an extension). The referendum was approved by a 52% to 48% margin nationwide, revealing a divide between London (which voted to remain by 60% to 40%) and many other parts of the country.
Brexit negotiations have been protracted and convoluted, the fall-out dividing families and friends, and bleak predictions of a post-Brexit apocalypse have filled the pages of pro-EU newspapers across the nation. Some Londoners fret about the city losing its multicultural edge (270 nationalities speaking some 300 different languages). Others worry about a sudden house-price crash that may follow a 'no deal' Brexit (departing from the EU with no agreement with the EU) and the predicted economic chaos that many say will follow. Others are more stoic or have simply reached saturation point, having had enough of the ceaseless white noise of Brexit. But whatever their perspective, Londoners all care about the future of London and hope the city can preserve its much-cherished influence, attractiveness and dynamism.
The 'leave’ vote in the Brexit referendum appeared to surprise both camps. Theresa May replaced David Cameron as prime minister and, after less than a year in office, called a snap election that looked likely to deliver a parliament dominated by the Conservatives. But an unexpectedly strong Labour performance resulted in a hung parliament, with no overall majority, leaving May a weakened figure.
Brexit's wheels have long been turning, but many of its changes will take a long time to solidify, and the effect on visitors in the next few years will probably be limited, bar currency fluctuations (and a weaker pound making for cheaper holidays for inbound travellers).
Closer to home, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, left office after two terms to join May’s Conservative party as foreign secretary (only to resign in 2018). The capital rejected his party’s new mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, in favour of Sadiq Khan, a Labour MP who was born in Tooting in South London to a working-class British Pakistani family and is a practising Muslim, making him the world’s first elected leader of that faith in any Western city. His performance in office has been well received overall, notably his response to the 2017 terrorist attacks in London and Manchester.
Way to Go
Some of the brightest news coming out of London is Crossrail. Now officially named the Elizabeth Line, Crossrail is an ambitious (and over-budget) underground and overground transport system that will stretch for 73 miles east and west and through central London, linking Reading with Shenfield. The Paddington–Heathrow branch in the west opened in 2018. The new line will increase central London rail capacity by 10% and bring an extra 1.5 million people to within 45 minutes of central London. Crossrail 2 plans, to link north and south London, await approval. Even better news is the so-called Night Tube, with the Victoria and Jubilee Lines, plus most of the Piccadilly, Central and Northern Lines, running all night on weekends. The service has been extended to include the London overground between Highbury & Islington and New Cross Gate and other lines are expected to follow suit in the next few years.