The District Line Blues: A Journey Through London’s Ailing Economy

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The District Line Blues: A Journey Through London’s Ailing Economy


TThe morning rush hour was the busiest time of the day for Jayant Amin’s newsagent in the heart of the City of London, before Covid-19. After seeing five nearby shops close in the building he occupies across from Mansion House tube station, he is among the survivors hoping to profit from the slow return of office workers.

“I’ve seen ups and downs. We survived the 2008 financial crisis, but this is the worst, ”he said. Business remains slow for Amin and his wife, Rajeshree, who have run the store for two decades. Next month he will be granted freedom of the City of London in recognition of his long service, giving him the right to lead sheep on London Bridge. However, it is herds of office staff that he hopes for.

“It was sometimes a ghost town during the lockdown,” Amin said. “Now it’s starting to improve, but if people don’t come back to the city, it will have a big impact. “

Jayant and Rajeshree Amin in their shop near Mansion House tube station in London. Photographie : Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Ahead of the Chancellor’s budget, the Guardian traveled the length of the London Underground District line to take the temperature of the capital’s economy. Amin’s shop in the Square Mile is near the middle of the line, which connects Richmond, Wimbledon, Ealing Broadway and Edgware Road and Upminster on the Essex border.

Contributing to over a fifth of national income, the capital has a prosperous image compared to the ‘red wall’ towns of the north and the Midlands, where the Tories have concentrated much of their political capital. Yet London contains some of the poorest parts of Britain.

Although Rishi Sunak will focus much of his budget speech on locations outside the M25, the capital sums up the economic challenges he faces, including inequality.

The District line sums up the problem. In leafy places such as Richmond upon Thames, most people were able to work from home and saved money during the lockdown by avoiding travel. East Ham, towards the other end of the line, is historically a poorer area, with large numbers of residents in lower paying jobs supporting the office economy, such as retail, hospitality, cleaning. and security. Many have been put on leave and unemployment has risen rapidly amid the worst recession in 300 years.

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“You’ve had a serious impact on the jobs that depend on office workers and international tourists,” said Paul Swinney, research director at the Center for Cities think tank. “London has gone from being this big black star aspiring to activity from the rest of the country to looking like the sick man from the UK. “

Leaked Treasury documents suggest that a ‘Plan B’ proposal to limit the spread of Covid by bringing home work could cost the economy £ 18 billion over five months. London would again shoulder a large part of the burden.

Richmond upon Thames was the place in Britain with the highest rate of people working from home – over 70% of the local workforce. Cinita Kitaguchi, who works at Digby’s coffee bar in Richmond Station, has seen a gradual increase in the number of morning commuters in recent weeks. But business is still not as booming as it used to be. “Mondays and Fridays are always quiet; nobody wants to work near the weekend, ”she said.

Unemployment in the district has remained low at just 3.5%, and the average price of homes is more than twice the national average. Yet Richmond has not entirely escaped the economic impact of Covid, according to Liberal Democrat Council Leader Gareth Roberts. Several stores have closed on Main Street, and universal credit applications tripled last spring. “It was culture shock,” he said.

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Sophia Procter was on the verge of launching her first business in February last year, but postponed the plan until the summer to avoid the initial mayhem of Covid-19. She took PR jobs to keep earning money after her husband’s job as a freelance TV producer dried up.

Cllr Gareth Roberts at the Richmond upon Thames Council Offices. Photographie : Martin Godwin/The Guardian

“I was juggling home schooling and self-employment. Trying to start a business and do it all under one roof has been the most stressful time of my life, ”she said.

His company, Munchy Play, started with the support of the town hall, sells children’s plaques with a track for toy cars and trains. “You never foresee a global pandemic. It’s been really positive since then. But the government must do more to support small businesses. “

Travel 20 stops on the District Line to Mansion House, and activity is still significantly below pre-pandemic levels. The number of commuters entering or leaving the station is still less than half of pre-Covid levels, compared to 60% across the network as a whole.

Sophia Procter says it has been the most stressful time of her life.
Sophia Procter says it has been the most stressful time of her life. Photographie : Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Much has changed since the turn of the millennium, when the Amins opened the newsagents. They now sell more vapes to bankers than copies of the Financial Times, which has its offices a few steps away. The couple come from their home in Wembley each morning. “All the stores are busy,” Jayant said.

Downstream in East Ham, just 13 stops, unemployment soared to over 9% during the pandemic, while the region had one of the highest leave rates in the country before the program closed in late September; leaving many local residents dry.

Sitting in the VE6 cafe around the corner from East Ham station, local Labor MP Stephen Timms said the region had struggled with poverty for decades before Covid struck. Despite its problems, many people had jobs in the city. The problem was, he was largely poorly paid and insecure.

“Before the pandemic, almost everyone had a job. This is no longer the case. So the question is how long will it take people to find a job. And, the proof is, slowly, ”he said.

Rokhsana Fiaz, maire de Newham.
Rokhsana Fiaz, maire de Newham. Photographie : Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Despite high local unemployment rates, Janvir Sandhu, the owner of VE6, still struggles to recruit staff for the store, which is run as a social enterprise and offers vegan cooking and yoga classes.

“Nobody came forward; maybe it was a feeling of laziness, ”she said. The loss of East Europeans to Covid and Brexit has reduced the number of people willing to work in the hospitality industry, and one of its employees moved to the nearby Amazon warehouse after having heard of high rates of pay.

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Rokhsana Fiaz, the directly-elected Labor mayor of Newham, which encompasses East Ham, said additional government funding was needed to help residents return to work, including for training programs. More help for the unemployed is vital for the budget, she said.

“When you take into account a pre-existing economic context and austerity, it has hampered the ability of our residents to recover and come out of the constraints of poverty,” she said.

Sunak could live up to the budget, for an area where the health and economic effects of the pandemic have been tragically high. But the Chancellor made it more difficult by slashing universal credit by £ 20 per week, taking £ 24million of combined purchasing power out of the local economy.

“It’s going to be really tough. How can you maintain a sense of resilience or even hope? Even before the pandemic, we had a large number of people in poverty, ”Fiaz said.

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