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The world in one city

London's skyline
In the past 10 years it has become more expensive to live in the capital

Kurt Barling
BY Kurt Barling
BBC London's Special Correspondent

BBC London's Special Correspondent Kurt Barling says despite a tough and uncertain decade, we must now look forward and not hark back if we can hope to deal with the challenges ahead.

As the new century was looming into view, I was beginning an investigation into a Muslim cleric in North London.

The new decade was starting just like previous ones with new arrivals swelling the international ranks of the Capital.

Abu Hamza had become a magnet for many migrants coming from the Muslim world, often as a result of conflict. Afghanis, Algerians, Jordanians, Egyptians, and Somalis all mixed with increasing rancour with established ethnicities at the Finsbury Park mosque.

Conflicting groups of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis had invited Abu Hamza to broker a peace at the mosque. As his reputation grew so did the attendance of numerous Muslims from other parts of the globe.

Since the beginning of the Millennium the internationalisation of London has continued apace. According to census statistics there are now more Germans in London that Nigerians
Kurt Barling

In all this there were clues of some of the significant new challenges London, a city of perennial migration, would face in the following decade.

The authorities were not on the ball. Our undercover filming revealed a world of menace, hatred and distortion.

When the results of my investigation came together in a film entitled "Trouble at the Mosque", the Twin Towers cataclysm on September 11th 2001 prevented it from initially being broadcast.

Our film was deemed potentially too inflammatory because it depicted, among others, Abu Hamza, in an extremely unfavourable light. Eventually the courts proved us right and jailed Hamza for a range of public order offences.

The tepid public approach of the authorities to Hamza's inflammatory antics actually spawned a number of counter demonstrations from the British National Party.

On one occasion there was a stand-off between people arrogant enough to propagate a view that those who had flown the planes into the Twin Towers were heroes and those who were arrogant enough to associate all these evils with Islam.

Different decades, different challenges

A few weeks ago when Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party said he felt that London was no longer "British" I was reminded of the moment in 2002 when these two extremities would have us believe London's experiment in tolerance was about to implode.

There have always been strains on that experiment with tolerance as London has become an increasingly diverse international City.

Imam Abu Hamza preaching near Finsbury Park Mosque
Abu Hamza preaching near Finsbury Park mosque

From the London of my grandfather's youth which saw thousands of Jews arriving from Eastern Europe before the First World War. To the time when my mother was growing up Hornsey in the 1930s and 1940s and migrants flooded in from the rise of European fascism.

In my younger years citizens of the New Commonwealth created new challenges for the City in which I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of those challenges remain with us, fresh constantly emerge.

Over the past decade the outward looking face of London has changed quite dramatically.

You only have to remember how London 2012 was sold to the International Olympic Committee to recognise that. Up until the late 1970s those that called the shots in London were largely white and male.

The faces that peered out from bank counters, served you in shops and treated you at the local GP surgery not to mention those that took your complaints at the local town hall were overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon.

London's economy has grown at a rapid pace since then sucking in labour from other parts of Britain and of course from other parts of the world. London's economy has also changed. It has come to increasingly depend on banking and the service sector.

Of course a leading world financial centre cannot expect to operate without foreign nationals who bring skills and expertise that would otherwise gravitate to alternative locations.

But in common with reliance in the NHS in previous generations on Commonwealth labour from the Caribbean and India, new migrants can be seen taking up jobs that others have moved on from. Somali bus drivers, Kosovan cleaners, Polish builders.

A city of paradoxes

Since the beginning of the Millennium the internationalisation of London has continued apace. According to census statistics there are now more Germans in London that Nigerians.

Membership of the European Union has allowed French, Portuguese and Scandinavians to try their luck in the flexible economy of London. You can find almost any major language spoken on the planet spoken somewhere in this greatest of cosmopolitan cities.

Harking back to a Britain that never really existed and conjuring up mythical 'migrant' beasts won't help us get through this recession.
Kurt Barling

New York has experienced a similar influx over the past decade but I doubt many there would describe it as less American.

All this can be exciting, unless that is you live in an area of high unemployment or you are unskilled and poorly educated. It is one of the great paradoxes of London that whilst you can find some of the most talented, wealthy and powerful people on the planet here; you can also find some of the poorest, downcast and forgotten citizens too.

Two recent sets of statistics highlight the paradox. At one end of the scale bonuses are back on the banking agenda. At the other end figures from ONS (the Office of National Statistics) place London Boroughs like Hackney and Lewisham at the bottom of the pile nationwide for the numbers of unemployed people chasing a single vacancy in the borough.

Eighteen of the bottom locations in the UK are in London. Ninety-two people are chasing each job in Hackney as opposed to two in a City like Chester. In terms of jobs per applicant London is simply not creating enough employment.

In places like Barking and Dagenham, and along the Lea Valley many manufacturing jobs have been lost.

The growing resentments in many communities bring a timely reminder that whilst jobs may be mobile people are generally not. Those who are settled longest are probably the least likely to want to move.

At the start of the new Millennium, Bernie Grant MP for Tottenham and long-time champion of minorities died.

Post 7/7

If he'd lived he would have witnessed many minority communities emerge from the shadows. Many have argued elsewhere that the election of President Barack Obama may well hasten this development.

Public services in London have noticeably become more inclusive, drawing on the talents of all its communities.

Many members of the visible minorities no longer operate on the margins of the London economy and many more women occupy places of decision making.

Town Halls more readily reflect the communities that they serve.

This changing complexion of decision-making personnel was clear to see in one of the biggest challenges faced in the capital, the fallout from the tube bombings on July 7th 2005.

United Against Facism march in Harrow in 2009
United Against Facism march in Harrow in 2009

The drive to combat terrorism has navigated a tightrope between getting support from communities used as camouflage by people wanting to commit acts of terrorism and making those communities feel secure from harassment.

Success is arguably mixed, but what is different from previous decades is the ability of civic institutions in London to harness the abilities of people from many more communities in the fight against terrorism.

The potential for disaster that surrounded the antics of Abu Hamza was challenged by a broad coalition of voices. Above all it changed the way Muslim communities articulated their understanding of what it was to be British.

July 7th 2005 did for Muslim London what Broadwater Farm and the Macpherson Inquiry had done for black London in previous decades. It turned mainstream Muslims in Britain into advocates of engagement with the authorities.

The end of the first 21st Century decade reflects tough and uncertain times for many Londoners. In some ways the capital has become more distinguishable from the rest of the country by its increasingly international character.

A city to live in?

But, London remains at the heart of a Britain trying to navigate the turbulent currents of the world economy and it is increasingly difficult for individuals to insulate themselves from this turbulence.

In the past 10 years it has become more expensive to live and survive in the capital. Ask anyone trying to get on the property ladder. Waiting lists for social housing are getting ever longer.

Your Decade
What are your key memories from the last 10 years in the capital?
Email us and even send photos to yourlondon@bbc.co.uk and we'll publish as many as we can.

Many people have moved out looking for cheaper or alternative housing. Most householders sitting on their equity would be horrified at the debt some young people have to incur just to keep a roof over their heads.

Meanwhile, our experiment with tolerance continues and more communities from across the globe join it.

Harking back to a Britain that never really existed and conjuring up mythical 'migrant' beasts won't help us get through this recession nor will it give us a better sense of who we are entering this second decade as a 21st century nation.

London: The world in one city
26 Nov 09 |  People & Places
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15 Dec 09 |  Arts & Culture
In Pictures: A changing landscape
26 Nov 09 |  People & Places
In Pictures: London's Decade
26 Nov 09 |  People & Places



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