Photo by Richard Newstead
Artillery Row

Falling out of love with London

Bureaucrats are degrading England’s capital

Recently, I had a major realisation as I was walking home to my flat in Highbury. 

It was a Sunday evening, and I was returning from a trip to Tunbridge Wells. It had been warm and comfortable there — busy but breathable, pretty, you get the picture. As I came out of the tube, I saw an area that was distinctly the opposite. Taking in my surroundings and following my normal path home (a journey that usually involves hiding my phone from thieves) I suddenly realised: I don’t like London much any more.

In Khan’s London, everything declines apart from bureaucrats’ salaries

This has never been the case. In fact, I am usually evangelical about the Big Smoke. Born and bred in Islington, my parents practically had to tear me away when, aged 13, our family moved to Kent. I rushed back as soon as I could. 

My increasing disenchantment with London, I now realise, started in 2016, when I had been on another return journey — this time from Berlin. I had been out clubbing most nights and found that the Germans were much more relaxed about closing times than I was used to; I felt liberated from the ringing bells of landlords and their staff wanting to close up. Coming back to the UK clarified my thoughts: London’s closing times were more apt for a care-home karaoke evening than a capital.

This was the same year that Sadiq Khan had become Mayor of London. I was not particularly political at that time or interested in this new official. Still my ears pricked up when he announced the appointment of a “Night Czar”, called Amy Lamé, to rescue nightlife. I considered this a positive development, both for culture and the economy. Little did I realise, though, that this “Czar” would become symbolic of Khan’s London, in which everything declines apart from bureaucrats’ salaries.

It’s hard to know where to begin with how Khan ruined London. The rise of knife crime is an especially vivid example. The most obvious signs of decay are the dead streets at night, congested roads and grotty buildings, as well as tube carriages filled with warnings about why you shouldn’t stare. It is as though the city is now trying to put people off ever moving here. It has the pettiness and militancy of Singapore with the scruffiness of a Magaluf bar.

Khan’s main issue is one shared by other leaders in devolved bureaucracies — he has a pathological urge to meddle in a way that almost always makes things worse. Perhaps the biggest example of this, though it is not fashionable to say, are the anti-traffic measures he has installed in London (LTNs and ULEZ) with scant regard for properly consulting the population. For all the claims that these interventions are solving climate change, the streets tell a different, clogged-up story, with London recently becoming the world’s most congested city for the second year running

Whereas in 2016 car drivers spent an average of 73 hours sitting in traffic, it was 156 in 2022. In the magical world of devolution, it seems that results do not matter (or, as I recently wrote for The Critic, can be fluffed). Otherwise you might imagine that Will Norman, London’s first “Walking and Cycling Commissioner appointed in 2016, would be shown the door (or, out of sheer embarrassment, find it himself). Instead he has doubled down on his plans, which mostly involve forcing cars off the road, at a cost to the taxpayer of £110,000 — £114,999 per year.

Khan’s czars are not so dissimilar from the lazy Russian aristocracy

Another person comfortable with failure is Lamé, who has even been rewarded for her poor performance. Whilst City Hall data suggests the number of nightclubs in the capital declined by 22 per cent between 2019 and 2021, The Spectator recently reported she had her pay increased by 40 per cent to £116,000. Lamé (who wants to make London “greener”,diverse” and “sustainable”) can count recent achievements such as giving Bromley and Woolwich £130,000 each to become “Night Time Enterprise Zones”. This is in spite of the fact that no one wants to go clubbing in either, whereas they do in Soho. The only thing “sustainable” ensured by Lamé are business closures in hospitality. As for “diversity”, the capital certainly delivers “equality of unemployment”.

Khan’s “czars” only live up to their name in that they are not so dissimilar from the lazy Russian aristocracy of the past, convinced they are entitled to large sums whilst doing little in return. The word czar is even more unfortunate when you think about Khan’s administration as a whole, where councils routinely seize assets off voters, many of whom have had their democratic wishes overruled. Take Haringey Council, which made almost £2 million in fines between September and December 2022 from LTNs, despite many residents’ well known objections to their installations.

Given London’s decay, it is startling that both mainstream parties think we need more “devolution” around the country. If Cornwall, which recently received a devolution deal, ends up with a Mayor like Khan, it’s not hard to imagine they will soon invent a surfing speed limit, put curfews on crab hunting and ban Gordon Ramsay from the county.

Maybe those places getting new “devolution deals” will mourn the same way I do now for London — a beautiful city, built by titans, now being destroyed by bureaucracy.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover