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London calling

The New York Times has just published a special edition magazine on London. It paints an unflattering portrait of the city; a place populated by greedy, overly-apologetic, cricket-playing, Lady Diana-obsessed drunks, who hate young people and the Olympic Games. It may be true, but it’s a view based on pure jealousy.

2012 is shaping up to be a huge year for London. Over the summer, it will celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee (60 years on the throne), with all sorts of royal shenanigans, including regattas, lawn parties and concerts. In July, through to September, the eyes of the world will again be on the world’s capital city, as it hosts the Olympics and then the Paralympics.

Before that, there’s the small matter of London’s mayoral election, in May, which is of more political interest to the rest of the nation than it might at first seem. If Ken Livingstone does defeat incumbent, Boris Johnson, it will probably signal Johnson’s return to party political politics proper, where he will pose a dangerous threat to David Cameron’s premiership.

The creation of a London mayor, means the city is now able to execute policies to suit itself; the congestion charge, the Boris’ bike scheme and its ever-changing skyline, as relaxed planning regulations have facilitated non-stop development.

The global economy is a mess, but London seems to have weathered the financial storm better than most expected. Its economy has shrunk less than those of rival capital cities and the UK’s other regions; its house prices continue to rise.

The relatively strong position London finds itself in, is partly due to the fact that it avoided too much complacency during its long financial-fuelled boom. It concentrated on its weaknesses, such as its ageing and creaking public transport system. The tube lines have been extended and are constantly being updated, the bus network has been enhanced, the Docklands Light Railway and Eurostar link to Paris, have been built from scratch.

London’s travel infrastructure is gradually improving, even though it is still far too expensive.

So can London move into the business-part of this historic year full of confidence?

The Economist believes the city faces three key threats to its position as the world’s pre-eminent hub. Firstly, any backlash against the practices of the boom years, could make London a harder place to do business and Boris Johnson is constantly telling his central government conservative colleagues, to resist calls for a tougher line on immigration, increased taxation of the rich and banking regulation.

Mayor Johnson is also outspoken on the need for increased airport capacity. Heathrow is the world’s busiest airport, but amazingly has only two runways and is unlikely to be granted another. The anti-environmental lobby (seen as pro-business), says that to stop international business haemorrhaging to Paris and Frankfurt, London’s other airports must be expanded, or a new one built. Indeed, Boris Johnson wants his legacy to be agreement on a new airport in the Thames estuary (although it’s more likely to be those bikes).

Thirdly, London has some well-documented social problems that need attending. Crime is essentially stable, but burglary and weapon-related crimes are on the increase, giving the city a violent reputation abroad. During the riots of 2011, the police were frequently swamped by civil disobedience, the Occupy protesters are probably here to stay and union boss, Len McCluskey, recently said that the Olympics represent a good opportunity for more lawlessness.

London is ideally placed as a global centre; the English language, the geographical location and time zone are all good selling points, but with increased competition coming from the Far East, New York and other European cities, it cannot afford to rest on its laurels. If it is to remain top of the class, London must host an exemplary Olympic Games and remind the world why it leads everyone in the field of pageantry.

Nigel Phillips

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