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London: Time for Plan B

The capital’s long evolution has gone horribly wrong. But we have solved worse crises

In one of the election leaflets put out by the likely next Mayor of London, we learn that Sadiq Khan is the “bus driver’s son who grew up on a council estate and saved up to buy his own house.” Much of the reason why the Labour candidate has an eight-point lead at the time of writing can be found in that short sentence, a little masterpiece of copywriting. Humble beginnings as the descendant of migrants, not ashamed to have lived on a council estate, but aspirational enough to save up and buy his way into the propertyowning democracy. Even the bus is a perfect touch, the big red buses that every visitor to the British capital notices immediately.

Zac Goldsmith’s pitch, on the other hand, has been total continuity with the outgoing Boris Johnson administration, which has, as the Conservative hopeful infelicitously puts it, “put London on the map.” Elsewhere, the candidates converge. There should be much more housing, and it should be “affordable,” and it should be funded through the immense wealth that sloshes through the city, there should be better public transport, and there should be a public-private Garden Bridge crossing from Temple to the South Bank. The only dissonant notes, aside from Goldsmith’s increasingly personal, dog-whistle attacks on Khan, are in their backgrounds—the financier’s son versus the lad from the Henry Prince Estate.

The view upwards from Wellington House, a luxury apartment building in Westminster, London. Opposite: office block in Canary Wharf at night

This consensus was christened “Londonism” by the Economist a few years ago, drawing attention to the unexpected continuity between the Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson mayoralties, with their embrace of trickle-down economics, high-density development, expanded public transport and grand, spectacular projects. Londonism would have made a good alternative title for Rowan Moore’s Slow Burn City: London in the Twenty-First Century.

An eloquent, sweeping history-cum-polemic from a veteran, liberal, but increasingly prickly architectural critic, it begins with Regent’s Park, or more specifically, London Zoo. Here can be found concrete and nature, spectacle and science, public and private, planning and chaos, radical architecture like the Mappin Terraces and the Penguin Pool (both now cleared of their original inhabitants) and a new and grating form of “edutainment” and infantilism. In the part of the Zoo christened BUGS, children are forced to view the real wonders of nature through “a storm of infographic gunk... no space to think or imagine, no time for quiet wonder.”

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In Prospect’s May issue: Simon Taylor and Bronwen Maddox on why Hinkley Point C is an expensive gamble that might not pay off. Philip Collins examines Iain Duncan Smith’s tenure as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and Lionel Shriver reveals why she stopped fighting being female. Alan Rusbridger responds to last month’s piece on the Guardian by Stephen Glover. Also in this issue: Nicholas Soames says there’s no such thing as "Project Fear” and Howard Davies reviews Melvyn King’s new book and suggests that we are vulnerable to another financial crisis. Plus Ruth Dudley Edwards examines the fading myths of the Easter Rising and Owen Hatherley suggests it’s time to look for a Plan B to solve London’s housing issues.