Capital Feeling

High rents in London are likely to drive millennials out, but the city’s emotional pull is strong

Urban dystopia: Detail of Balfron Tower, designed by Ernő Goldfinger, which inspired J.G. Ballard’s “High Rise” (Sebastian F CC BY-SA 3.0)

Whether you read this before or after the London mayoral election on May 5; and whether it’s Old Etonian Zac Goldsmith, or “son of a bus driver” Sadiq Khan who takes City Hall, there will still be a seemingly insoluble crisis looming: London housing. Solving this was foremost in both their campaigns; and both have declared that they will ensure Londoners get “first dibs” on new homes. 

Which would be wonderful if a 22-year-old like me had the £25,000 or so needed to secure a 5 per cent deposit on the average London property. We under-thirties — the millennials that make up “Generation Rent” — have accepted that we’ll be renting for as long as we choose to exist in London.

A pity, then, that renting is unsustainable. Financial authorities advise against spending more than 30 per cent of your income on rent. Of my £1,550 post-tax monthly salary, I pay out £825 per month for my shared flat — bills and council tax not included. That is 53 per cent for a cupboard in Brixton, with no double-glazing, no proper locks — nor, ironically, cupboards.

Government figures show that rents in the capital have risen 19 per cent in the past five years: less than some other cities such as New York, to be sure — but London rents will only increase, probably exponentially. When my contract ends and the time comes to investigate the few water-warped and irresponsibly-converted flats on the market, whichever armpit of Satan into which I am ultimately forced will almost certainly cost a good deal more.

George Osborne’s attempts to butter up millennial voters have failed: taxing buy-to-let landlords simply abandons renters to shoulder the increased costs. And should current landlords decide it’s not worth the hassle and decide to sell — well, whoever wins the mayoral race, I doubt that either Sadiq or Zac will seriously try to prevent commercial landlords or foreign investors snapping up off-plan any desirable new-builds that are going.

Thus many predict an exodus of millennials. Bristol, Portsmouth, Manchester — all have been touted as the New Capital. Even those who still choose to work in London would rather have the luxury of living out of it: friends renting in Reading earn the same but bask in comparative splendour, content with an hour’s commute for twice the living space and the possibility of one day buying a flat nearby. Granted, they can’t Uber home at 4 a.m. for under £20, but then we’re supposedly also Generation Sensible anyway.

And yet — maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner but I still love London town. Yes, post-Brussels, it’s ever more dangerous; yes, it’s hideously polluted and crowded; and God knows, it’s untenably expensive. But it’s London. It’s my home, and the place I will always love more than anywhere else in the world. When I just walk around, the streets seem paved with limitless possibility. Anything and anyone can happen and probably will. Maybe it won’t be good — maybe it’ll be terrible — but whatever happens in London, it won’t be boring. And that’s what makes this ridiculous, frustrating mess of a city impossible to abandon.