London (AFP) Not long ago, London was booming. Now you fear depression.
Britain’s exit from the European Union and the Coronavirus pandemic hit the British capital in a severe storm. In 2021, the city has fewer residents, fewer businesses, sharper divisions and tighter options than anyone had expected.
On May 6, Londoners will elect a mayor whose performance will help determine whether this is a period of decline for Europe’s largest city – or an opportunity to do things better.
“It will definitely be tough,” said Jack Brown, a lecturer in London Studies at Kings College London. “Those two totally seismic changes” – Brexit and the virus – “will be too much to deal with.”
Pandemics, fires and war – London has escaped them all. But it had never experienced such a year before. Coronavirus has killed more than 15,000 Londoners and shook the foundations of one of the world’s largest cities. As the fast-moving mass vaccination campaign holds the promise of a wider reopening, the Associated Press is looking into the impact of the pandemic on people and institutions in London and questions what the future might hold.
The newly elected mayor of London will lead a city of more than 8 million that faces the usual big city problems – lack of affordable housing and transit, so much crime and pollution – as well as an unprecedented array of problems.
A year of closures and travel restrictions due to the Coronavirus has emptied the city’s office towers, closed its nightlife, closed bars and restaurants, and banished international tourists. It will take a long time to get back to normal.
“We have lost about 300,000 jobs already, and more than a million Londoners are now on vacation,” said Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is seeking re-election. So the challenge is how to avoid mass unemployment in the 1980s.
Khan, whose priorities include convincing people to return to the city center and easing economic inequalities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, said Khan.
If the polls are correct, Khan, 50, is likely to win a second term in Thursday’s election, which has been postponed by a year due to the pandemic. Both he and his main rival are success stories made in London.
Khan, a lawyer and member of the center-left Labor Party, is the son of Pakistani immigrants. His father was a bus driver and his mother was a dressmaker.
Meanwhile, the ancestors of conservative candidate Sean Bailey are part of the “Windrush generation” of post-WWII immigrants to Britain from the Caribbean. He was raised by a single mom in a public residence in Ladbroke Grove, an area where expensive Victorian homes are located near dilapidated social housing complexes.
The 49-year-old is an avid advocate of the city who he says has given him opportunities to thrive.
“More than anywhere else in the world, if you come from a working-class background, London offers unparalleled opportunities,” said Bailey, who believes crime is the biggest challenge in London.
Billy wants to see more young workers, more police officers on alert and more use of stop and search capabilities to take knives and other weapons off the street. Stop and search is a highly controversial policy because black youth have been disproportionately targeted, and this has been the focus of the anti-racist protests over policing.
But Bailey says it’s necessary.
“The thing that makes the black community angry above all is the death rate of our youth,” he said.
Both Khan and Bailey – and more than a dozen other candidates, from the Liberal Democrats and Greens contestants to anti-lockdown activists and bucket-headed comedian named Count Benefis – know they are running into a city transformed by the virus and Brexit.
Brexit is challenging London by ending the free flow of people from the continent and jeopardizing the city’s position as Europe’s financial center. Meanwhile, the epidemic has challenged the existence of mega-cities and the crowded places where people live, work and travel.
After three decades of growth, London’s population has declined in 2020 as people have left in search of more space during lockdown or returned to their home regions or countries. It remains to be seen if they return.
Three closures, now gradually being lifted, have kept office workers at home and turned central London into a ghost town. Millions no longer commute downtown to work or play, as coronavirus restrictions forced people to stay local.
Across London – the “city of villages” whose neighborhoods retain distinct personalities – the pandemic has prompted people to reassess their priorities.
“If you go to central London … almost nobody is there,” said Mark Burton, who runs a community arts site in Walthamstow, a once brave area in the northeast of the city. “While here, there is liveliness around the cafes.”
Burton believes Khan has done a very good job as mayor, although he wants more support for cycling and community projects.
Across town in Ladbroke Grove, Resident Nicholas Olaged loves rival Billy pledge to stop crime. He also believes that the epidemic has given the city a new sense of itself.
“I think it awakened people a sense of community,” said Olaged. “Before, London was heading in the direction that we were no longer a community, we were no longer a guardian of our neighbors. But I think that brought us back together. The people who stay at home and care for their neighbors, work from home – families have brought them together.”
Sian Berry, the Greens’ mayoral candidate, says the epidemic has exposed widening gaps in London society and left people wanting a “fresh start”.
“It’s a very exciting place to live, London, but it is polluted, it can be stress, and the cost of living is very high,” she said. “Every neighborhood in London has its own soul as well, and we need to take care of that.”
Brown, historian of London, is optimistic about London’s ability to recover. It has gone through rough times before in its 2,000 years of existence.
He said, “The old history of London really is that every now and then fires are kindled – the whole city burns – and then everybody suffers from the plague.” “This happens in a cycle of years and years and people keep coming back.
“London’s very long history is incredibly resilient. It’s even a little indifferent at times. Not everyone always takes it. But the place itself, its economy, its appeal, it’s kind of resilient.”
Associated Press writer Danica Kirka for this story.
Read other installments in the Associated Press’s “London: Beyond the Pandemic” series: https://apnews.com/article/london-beyond-the-pandemic-837183578755