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What Made London So Ripe For Riots

The uniquely integrated socio-economic mix within the city's individual neighborhoods are a benefit for London -- when times are good. But once the economy tanks, the differences lived up close can be an explosive source of conflict and resentmen

Police anti-riot forces earlier this week (hozinja)
Police anti-riot forces earlier this week (hozinja)
Marc Roche

LONDON - What triggered the riots that have engulfed London since August 6? Poverty, social exclusion, the lack of parental authority, hatred towards the police and mere vandalism are tossed in together to try to explain the violence being broadcast before our eyes.

But contrary to what people might think, the worst riots did not take place in those poorest of London boroughs where the damned of the Fourth World wander. Tottenham, Hackney, Clapham, Croydon and Enfield, which have provided the scenes of the capital's most destructive behavior, are districts where different social groups live side-by-side.

This social diversity is common in London, and the traditional cohabitation among rich and the poor works quite well in periods of economic boom. However, as the acts of delinquency show, this model can be easily shattered in a time of economic recession, budget cuts (especially in the social budget) and high unemployment.

"Compared to other major European cities, London is a city where the gap between the rich and the poor keeps growing -- even if it has not reached the gap that can be found in a city like New York," says Tony Travers, professor of local politics at the London School of Economics. "However, in London there are no "American ghettoes," or rough suburbs like the banlieues in France. London is a good example of social diversity."

The end of the traditional urban structure

To illustrate his point, Travers offers the example of the Regent's park district, the central London neighborhood where he lives. On the one hand, there are buildings with Doric colonnades and ironwork or stucco balconies, designed by the renowned British architect John Nash. That is where the wealthy people live. On the other hand, there are badly-kept council flats where employees, workmen, the unemployed and immigrants live.

Albany Road, the long commercial street that separates these two worlds, is a curious urban assortment full of Asian shops and liquor stores adjoining trendy clothing shops and chic caterers bursting with food.

Thus, London is a patchwork of contrasting social strata not particularly hostile with one another, and who live together without really seeing one another. Each group has its values, its norms and its way of living. And yet, the display of wealth by some people can make others envious.

This policy of social diversity is the result of the fragmentation of power amongst the city's 32 boroughs. The housing policy, especially the allocation of publicly-supported "council" flats, is overseen by the individual boroughs, rather than the city council or national government.

These prerogatives explain why in the wealthiest and "greenest" boroughs like Kensington or Westminster, many public housing units were once built next to luxurious houses. But inevitably, the "gentrification" of deprived districts by middle-class landlords broke down the old distinction between the well-off areas and the poorer ones. "This allowed young working people to fulfill the obsession of every Briton: To buy a house with a small garden," Travers says. But the benefits in creating a new social elite has broken down the city's traditional structure, and may have helped pave the way for the violence that has erupted.

Read the original article in French (subscription may be required)

photo - hozinja

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Geopolitics

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