Reading through the readers’ comments posted below-the-line in response to an article about graduate salaries on the AJ website, I found some thought-provoking issues. Paul Finch attempted to have a sensible debate with an anonymous commenter who continually tried to bait and troll him – it struck me that the real issue wasn’t the level of “compensation”, it was London itself.

Our capital-obsessed government, financiers and developers seemingly can’t look beyond an endless cycle of feeding a city which is resource-hogging and disproportionate in scale to the rest of the country. No other country in Europe has such a disparity in population and status between its capital, and its second and third largest cities: it isn't by chance that so much of the UK's most valuable land and around half the UK's architects are concentrated in and around London.

Given the ever-growing imbalance, it's unlikely that we'll ever see a "provincial" practice take a leading role again, although Ian Simpson's success with high rise blocks in Manchester, and Glenn Howells’ in Birmingham hint at the possibilities, as did RMJM’s prominence during the 1970’s and 80’s. That also goes to underplay other the UK’s other conurbations – the West Midlands, Greater Glasgow, Tyneside, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester.

As a result, there’s a tradition, which continues today, that some of the best Scottish graduates go down south, drawn to the bright lights and opportunities. Once there were alternatives. During the 80’s there was Hong Kong prior to its handover to China, in the 90’s there was Berlin after reunification but before Brexit – but since then the draw of London has been hard to fight. Some Scots stay forever and become expatriates, others return with a halo of glamour on their CV.
Today, the UK is a small country with an imperial-sized capital. It lost its role as the administrative centre for a quarter of the world’s population long ago, yet London is still a magnet for people and money, and in the language of today’s social justice warriors, that makes it over-favoured and especially privileged. The pulsing of currency and capital (both sorts) are palpable in Leadenhall Street and Canary Wharf; their vast glossy surfaces reflect each other and the mid-Atlantic accent which The Square Mile has developed since the Big Bang in 1987. 

If you catch the breakfast service at a Square Mile restaurant such as The Mercer in Threadneedle Street, you might even overhear some tips about where the smart money is going, from the men in sharp pinstripes and Church’s Oxfords shone to a high polish.  Edinburgh, by comparison, is more discreet. Sir Fred Badloss may have broken the Royal Bank, but an incomer would never guess that hundreds of billions of pounds are managed behind the douce facades of Georgian townhouses.

Meantime, under the present government at Westminster, the Edwardian chimera of the Imperial City lives on. At one point twenty years ago, Richard Rogers looked like he would become Baron Haussmann to Tony Blair’s Napoleon III; but for now Boris is in charge and acting out his destiny as the Great Self-Memorialist. Aside from all this other chronic flaws (egotism, dishonesty, and greed) the current prime minister is a man suffering from chronic folie de grandeur who is obsessed by his built legacy.

He has already spawned the bridge that never was, the airport that could never be, the bus nobody wanted and the cable car no-one uses. Perhaps he’ll eventually manage to build a mega-bridge (or tunnel) across Beaufort’s Dyke between Stranraer and Larne – and if he does, he’ll also need to re-construct 50 miles of dismantled railway and create a motorway to link Stranraer to the rest of Scotland via the M74 and WCML, then on to HS2 which will finally connect to … London.

Meantime, to the disaffected troll who took a pop at Paul Finch, the explanations for why graduate salaries don’t cover the cost of living could be either that salaries are too low, or the cost of living is too high.  The reason why graduate salaries are “too low” is easy to debate but far more difficult to solve, because it’s rooted in the changing role of architects.

Some of the theories advanced are: in order to maximise the grants they receive from the Scottish Government, the architecture schools turn out too many graduates, and that suppresses wages; lots of experienced architects have come into the country from the EU and further afield, and that suppresses wages; thanks to the Architects Act and the ARB, architects have a protected title but not a protected function – which means technicians and “plan drawers” can also do their work, and that suppresses wages; Thatcher’s obsession with ending monopolistic practices resulted in statutory fee scales being axed, and that suppresses wages; some graduates are prepared to do unpaid internships with big name practices, and that suppresses wages…

Lots to disagree over.

But the reason the cost of living is “too high” is much simpler to grasp, and for the benefit of the AJ’s anonymous provocateur – it’s London. Everything about the modern mega-city is expensive, including an exorbitant cost of living. Before they arrive in the Great Wen, prospective students might imagine living there is like a stage show turned inside out onto the pavements of Shaftesbury Avenue, where the people are haughty and over-privileged but essentially harmless, like poodles somehow transmogrified into human form.

Instead, they learn that it’s a grimy rat-race where people hustle, elbow and pick your pocket in the shadow of skyscrapers occupied by kleptocrats. During the 1990’s, I remember exploring London by experimentally taking the Tube south of the river. Inspired by the Carter USM song, I got off at New Cross – but quickly fled back onto the train. It felt Gangster even in the days before Grime. Nowadays in the East End you also have the “Shoreditch rough”, consisting of a character with a top knot and hipster pants plus a can of paint and a stencil, who imagines he’s a graff king…

The crux of high living costs is that they make life much tougher. With good qualifications and some experience, we’d hope to earn a decent salary which allows us to live a well-rounded life. With somewhere of our own to stay, whether bought or rented; the freedom to choose a car, motorbike, cycle or train as transport; the chance to take trips abroad occasionally; and the opportunity to save money for a rainy day and into a pension – but if you’re an architecture graduate on a starting salary, London removes those possibilities.

Yet the issues thrown up by London aren’t solely financial. Big cities in general, but London in particular, are also part of the problem with Covid. For someone on a low salary, living in a densely-packed area, London is bad for your health as well as your pocket. When you concentrate several million people together, you create economic growth and lots of jobs – but along with those come long commutes, gridlocked roads, over-packed trains, crowded streets and corridors, queues and lifts packed with people.

Just as capitalism thrives when you bring companies and people into close proximity with each other, you create social opportunities if you concentrate health and education infrastructure in one place, but you also form a high human density environment for a virus such as Covid, which likes people to rub shoulders.

Perhaps Covid will prove to everyone that the big city with its pollution, resource-intensiveness and ruinously expensive property is part of the problem. Another example: a big city like London or Paris for that matter, is a heat island.  On 30C+ days in recent years, you had the choice of either living outside on patios and terraces and broiling like a piece of bacon on a griddle – or staying inside and boiling like a lobster in a pot.  You could easily argue that in a temperate country like this, aircon is expensive, energy hungry and even obscene, yet in inner London it’s become commonplace.

On reflection, when siren voices whisper that Covid is a chance to rethink our lives, reset how we work and embed a set of changes, perhaps we should ask whether mankind's greatest invention, the city, isn't the underlying problem. Maybe we should dismantle London, as the radical planners proposed after the War, and disperse investment, jobs and people across the country. That could begin to shift us away from an entrenched system that many agree is unjust, but which is too dense and dangerously overgrown to change. For one thing, politicians like Boris have too much to lose on a personal level.

Failing that, perhaps graduates should consider so-called “provincial” cities or even practice in smaller towns as options, rather than automatically assuming that London is the only worthwhile destination for their talent. Perhaps their efforts and enthusiasm could even make the increasingly dis-United Kingdom a more equal place to live. As a parting shot, perhaps quality of life is a better reason than pure capitalism as to why Edinburgh is now Europe’s sixth biggest financial centre, and rising fast. Discuss…

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