April 12, 2010 / 7:40 PM / 10 years ago

Rich and Poor: London's tale of two cities

LONDON (Reuters) - Residents of the decaying Robin Hood Gardens estate, where grimy windows punctuate concrete, prison-like corridors, say they feel no connection with those living a short walk away in the luxury Canary Riverside complex.

Most of those in and around these overcrowded east London blocks live on incomes less than half the national average.

Their nearest green space is a small hill scarred with burned litter and the remnants of a fire.

The scene is a far cry from the gleaming business hub of Canary Wharf with its gyms and minimalist restaurants, where a penthouse flat can cost over $3.04 million.

That discrepancy — and the wider social gulf it represents — is unlikely to pass unnoticed in the run up to Britain’s May 6 general election.

The Labour party swept to power in 1997 with a promise to close the gap between rich and poor. Yet figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank indicate inequality is now higher than when Labour took office.

“It is an amazing area for all the wrong reasons,” said Tim Archer, local councillor and opposition Conservative candidate for the London seat of Poplar and Limehouse, which includes both deprived Robin Hood Gardens and financial center Canary Wharf.

“We have a difference of 10 years in life expectancy within the borough. We’ve got huge unemployment rates, but, thanks to Canary Wharf, we also have one of the highest numbers of jobs per head. We have prosperity and deprivation cheek by jowl.”

London is home to some of Britain’s richest and its poorest. The city’s main newspaper, the Evening Standard, ran a campaign titled “The Dispossessed” earlier this year, highlighting the plight of the capital’s needy. It found that in one of the world’s wealthiest cities, poor children are still being buried in mass graves.

TOUGH LONDON

London has four out of England’s eight most deprived local authorities, according to official statistics.

Tower Hamlets in east London, which includes Poplar & Limehouse, is the third poorest local authority in England. Islington, spiritual home of New Labour — the rebranded form of Labour politics that helped it to power in 1997, is eighth.

Islington shares a border with London’s financial district and is known for its trendy boutiques and numerous restaurants. It was for years home to former prime minister Tony Blair.

But, the borough is deceptive. More than 40 percent of children in primary school here are defined as living in poverty and it has the highest suicide rate in England.

The problems, say residents in these boroughs, are manifold: a chronic social housing shortage, immigration, low-level crime, poor state education.

“We know that children go to youth clubs and after-school clubs and that’s where they go for a meal,” Kristina Glenn, the head of the Cripplegate Foundation which funds voluntary projects in Islington, told Reuters.

“The youth workers tell us that if they don’t have a meal here, they’re not going to eat tonight.”

For many, the latest financial crisis has exacerbated the contrast between “them and us” — prompting hand-wringing over what the opposition Conservative party calls “Broken Britain.”

It has also fueled the popularity of minor parties like Respect, fronted by maverick politician George Galloway, who has capitalized on disaffection among east London’s immigrant, largely Bangladeshi, population.

“The real division that counts in this borough is between the extremely rich and politicians who serve them and the rest, who are either poor or middle income, in either case struggling to get by,” Galloway said in an interview, before an afternoon of hand-shaking and door-knocking at the Robin Hood estate.

This sort of complaint strikes a cord with many of London’s poorest residents, who felt left out by the boom years and now say they feel the pain of rising unemployment and spending cuts.

Labour has talked down the criticism, saying crime levels have reduced, neighborhood policing has improved and unemployment remains below the levels seen in the 80s and 90s.

“When Labour came to power in 1997, there were two million homes below the decency threshold, we’ve now refurbished over a million, including tens of thousands in Tower Hamlets,” said Jim Fitzpatrick, Limehouse Labour MP since 1997, and standing again.

But it’s a tough message to sell to an electorate disaffected with politics and politicians following an expenses scandal in which many MPs were shown to be claiming for items many voters felt to be extravagant.

“There’s always been this division in Islington,” shopper Marion Jones said, browsing the local outdoor market. “The wealthy have got really wealthy and everyone else has just stayed the same. It’s just the way it is. It’ll never change.”

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