Palomar, W1D

THE PALOMAR, 34 RUPERT ST, W1D 6DN
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I would in fact give this place 4 1/2 out of 5 but can’t figure out how to fill half a star.

Palomar serves dishes like ‘deconstructed kebab’, ‘Josperised Aubergine’ with feta emulsion and ‘Ironed Chicken Thighs’ (they really are ironed, in a sense). If you sit at the bar, as we did, you see it all unfold in the galley-like kitchen running most the length of the narrow 40-cover restaurant off Shaftesbury Avenue.

Don’t rush for food. Order a cocktail. The menu will want perusing, unless you’re already familiar with the “rich cultures of Southern Spain, North Africa and the Levant.”

Think za’atar, harissa, tahini, citrus. Dishes are delicate but not fussy or insubstantial. Eaten alone the ‘arak and orange braised’ fennel is tangy and interesting; served with hot, lightly spiced chicken thighs it’s exquisite. The sides aren’t an afterthought either. ‘Polenta Jerusalem Style’ came with asparagus, mushroom ragout, parmesan and truffle oil.

Gnocci Hamousta is the only dish I wouldn’t rush to repeat. The deep-fried gnocci were a little fatty, resembling croquettes. Redemption was to be found in dessert: Malabi, a silky Israeli milk pudding served with a raspberry coulis, pistachio and little meringue cylinders.

Service is fast and friendly. One chef noticed my interest in the pomegranate he was deseeding. Fiddly work. Pros tear them apart above a water receptacle because the white flesh floats and the red seeds sink, he explained. Palomar gets the little things right as well — no unfilled water glasses, oppressive acoustics or forced jollity. The special-occasion prices are warranted.

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A whine//magnum opus about London renting

I briefly became a fervent Jeremy Corbyn supporter today after a nasty surprise from our letting agents.

Hours later, that’s subsided. But the exchange did crystallise a few thoughts.

I’m moving out of my north London flat this week. Today an employee of Jigsaws, the lettings agent just a stone’s throw from Corbyn’s north Islington home, told us of their £162 exit fee and £210 (minimum) cleaning fee. The unspecified charges are alluded to in the small print of our contract. It was our responsibility to discover the detail and ask what the charge was likely to be, the agent said when I called her later.

Feelings of both anger and embarrassment that are characteristic of such ‘gotcha’ charges followed. It’s the sort of drive-by shooting that leads to a loss of faith in my brand of happy-go-lucky liberalism. I’m over the hump but now I’m sort of interested in it all.

We got fleeced because of two inequities or asymmetries. One, of information: when we sat down to sign our contract a year ago, the agents knew the hidden charges buried within. We didn’t. Two, of care: to middle-income tenants like us, the fees are a nuisance and a forgettable financial discomfort; but in London’s low-yield rental market, they are crucial to the agencies’ business model.

Researching whether we had any recourse to action I came across the property ombudsman’s website. From May 27 (after we signed), it says, agencies were obliged to “display a list of all fees, charges and penalties.”

That’s encouraging. Transparency should encourage competition between agencies, mollifying and/or formalising the rip-off fees. It may even lead to disintermediation. If prospective tenants knew about hidden costs upfront, they might push to strike deals with landlords directly. If the Airbnb for long-term rentals doesn’t exist already, someone will invent it. And existing players like SpareRoom may take market share.

I’m venting of course. Dodgy estate agents are nothing new and we should have done our homework more carefully. But my (naive?) guess is that by the time my younger siblings and cousins squeeze into the London property market, agencies’ mercenary tactics will be on the way out.

London Renters Win in Billionaire Backyard as Prices Soar

London Renters Win in Billionaire Backyard as Prices Soar

In a way this makes no sense. Rent in London is high relative to other U.K. cities and many category peers in other countries.

Relative to London house prices however, which have rocketed since 2009-2010, rental values are low. That’s true elsewhere too: the U.K. house price to rental price ratio is 40 percent above its long-term average, the IMF says. There are well-stated reasons why that could be a new normal. Notably the supply of new housing has failed to keep pace with demand for a decade or more.

But it could be a new bubble. One reason why rents are a good comparator is that they tend to be constrained by income. Unless you make do with continually smaller living spaces and such what, rental values can’t increase much more than income growth, which in the U.K. has been pretty flat. That house prices have gone up by 40, 50 or even 60 percent in the capital in recent years suggests, to some degree, that property is over-valued.

In the meantime, some tenants have found themselves living in properties with a million pound+ paper value, paying rents commensurate with a valuation of only half or a third of that.

No, the UK shouldn’t accept it is London-centred

Intelligent, though unimaginative, piece today in the FT by its regular political columnist Janan Ganesh.

UK should accept it is London-centred‘, he says. (Oxford readers, by the way, can register on the FT and receive a premium subscription for free).

His argument, essentially, is that governments have wasted public money attempting to alleviate the North-South divide with little, if any, success. That’s money that should be spent, well, on London-stuff. Moreover the mission of injecting prosperity up the M6 “slander[s] London”. If Northerners don’t like the (widening) gulf, they should just move.

Like Ganesh, I don’t think the North is poor because London is affluent. If someone dropped a big bomb on the City tomorrow, we’d all be worse off.

As John Micklethwait, editor of The Economist, said to me in an interview last year, “every country in the world would kill to have a London”. He’s surely right.

That quote appears in a piece I wrote for Isis, the long-running Oxford student magazine, entitled ‘Is London Leaving The Country Behind?

But as I wrote then there’s a problem when one city – albeit one that is a cash cow for the nation – becomes, to use Ganesh’s phrase, a “domineering metropolis”.

Reading it back now I still agree with why the North-South divide is a problem, but now, unlike then, I have a better idea about what I’d do to try and amend it.

I’m not at all convinced by High Speed 2, the £43 billion (assuming no cost over-runs) project to cut 40 minutes off the Manchester-London journey time. It will take decades to complete, the benefit calculations assume journeys are dead economic time (not true now; even less true in 2033) and it seems just as likely to funnel jobs southwards rather than northwards.

The argument for HS2 has always been somewhat patronising, namely that the only way to help the regions is to move them closer to London. I’m not against this in principle, of course, but it explains why (mostly Southern) politicians neglect HS2’s huge opportunity costs.

The money would be much better spent on infrastructure both within  Northern cities and between them. Travelling from one suburb of Manchester to another on the other side via public transport can take an hour and a half, at least. The equivalent journey in London, in my experience, would take less than an hour because the network is more extensive and services are faster and more frequent.

Similarly transport between Northern cities is onerous. I was amused by this stat today: it apparently takes longer to go from Manchester to Liverpool today, in 2013, than it did in 1883.

The distance from Manchester to Newcastle is 10 miles less than that between Manchester and London, but the fastest trains take more than half an hour longer to get there.

The logic of HS2 treats Northern urbanities as islands which can only be salvaged by plugging them into the South-East, but instead government policy should be focused at connected them to one another.

I also think that cities across the North would benefit enormously from more Borises, that is, more directly elected mayors with large mandates and large public profiles.

There’s no question that London’s big dollops of public investment – Crossrail most notably – are the result of a powerful City Hall lobby, especially when that lobby belongs to the same political party as the sitting Westminster government.

Most cities voted against directly elected mayoralties in recent referenda in May last year. That’s a real shame: the effect of having a charismatic, vocal Mancunian mayor on the television each night, writing newspaper columns and lobbying Westminster 24/7 would really benefit those voters who, sadly I think, succumbed to the short-sighted view that the last thing we need is more politicians on the public payroll.

So whilst accepting the failures – well documented by Ganesh – of previous and present attempts to redress regional economic inequalities, we shouldn’t give up. A combination of North-North infrastructure investment and direct democratic localism can, in time, really make a difference.

Is London leaving the country behind?

This is a piece I wrote for Isis, the termly glossy published by OSPL – the same student-run company that owns Cherwell. It didn’t make the final cut, and I can see why. The North-South divide makes me think a lot, but I found it difficult to organise those thoughts around a distinct theme, and to make it fit with the material I was obliged to use – namely the interview with John Micklethwait, Editor of The Economist. I spent some considerable time on it however; so the final result is a good piece, an interesting one, but nothing spectacular.

‘All roads lead to London’ is not yet a quotation from Boris Johnson, a Classical Scholar, but it may as well be.

Few cities can claim to be global centres of finance, business, art, politics and media. Despite intense competition from BRIC economies, London remains a leading global city – and its lead is growing. The city’s advantages – its language, timezone, legal system, and diverse cultural life – have propelled it to becoming the “capital of the world” suggests Christopher Meyer, a former British diplomat. Deals involving euros or dollars are made as often in the British capital as in Frankfurt or New York.

“Every country in the world would kill to have a London,” says John Micklethwait, Editor of The Economist. He is surely right. Even taking into account recent dollops of public investment – CrossRail and the Olympic Games most recently – London is a national cash cow, contributing more in taxation to to national tax revenue than it withdraws. Oxford Economics estimates that the annual subsidy from London to the rest of the UK is £15-20 billion. Recognising this, the London Mayor is clamouring for greater fiscal autonomy:  according to the LSE’s Tony Travers, Johnson is, Salmond-style, attempting “devo-max for the capital”.

As things stand, London is institutionally embedded in the rest of the country, despite sharing ever less in common with it. Parliament and Whitehall have facilitated Scottish devolution, but it is difficult to imagine them doing the same for the capital. The problem is that institutions – seemingly fixed and implacable – cannot keep pace with the force of globalisation.Seismic economic change has made London less reliant on other parts of the UK; its interests lie in foreign markets rather than domestic ones. Consequently, financiers in Canary Wharf are more likely to visit Beijing than Birmingham. If they travel to Manchester, it is only to observe Chelsea play Manchester United from the safe confines of an executive box.

“The rest of the country tends to feel more and more resentful,” says Micklethwait, due to an emotional disconnect between London and the rest of the country. “The danger comes [when] you… have a government that thinks it can play around with the golden goose.”  Despite the near-death experience of the financial crisis, the City continues to fill the Exchequer with gold. In 2010 the City contributed £50 billion to the government’s revenue, some 10% of the total. It is difficult to imagine the country doing better in the absence of London’s subsidy: “Yes, you get steeper inequality,” says Mickelthwaite, but “Overall it’s an incredible bonus.”

Is the burgeoning inequity between London and the rest a price the UK should willingly pay? Back in 2006, when the Conservative opposition promised to “share the proceeds of growth”, David Cameron was fond of an analogy from Polly Toynbee’s book: Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain. She asked, if society is a caravan moving through the desert, even if all the members are moving forward, how far away do the ones at the back – the allegorical English regions – have to fall before there are two caravans, not one?

Toynbee argues that it is far from evident that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’. During the last boom, although the South-East grew faster than the North, the frothy bubble of consumer credit and public spending gave the impression that debt-fuelled prosperity was a national, not London-based, phenomenon. Property in particular was a lucrative market for northern investors: city-centres across the North were  redevelopmed and gentrified.

But in reality, London’s size  has made it difficult for regional businesses to grow. Budding companies from outside London are in a permanent Catch-22. If they succeed then re-locating to London is a necessary step to further expansion abroad. If they struggle, then larger firms or private equity outfits from the capital are likely to swallow them up. When the FTSE 100 began in 1984, only half of its listed companies were based within Greater London; today the figure is over 70%. This means that professional services – accountancy, consultancy, law – are also concentrated in the capital.

When times are good, these changes go unnoticed. Jobs remain plentiful, even if the more lucrative ones are no longer available at home. But in bad times, educated graduates escape the regions to head for London – and when growth resumes, they do not go back. In 2012 over half of graduate jobs were in the South-East; the result is a slow brain drain down the M6.

Is there a solution? The Coalition Government is committed to building a high-speed rail service (HS2) extending to Manchester by 2033; this mammoth expenditure represents the centrepiece of its regional growth strategy. HS2 is designed to channel investment up the county, shrinking the distance between North and South, but who is to say that investment won’t go the other way? Manchester itself might hold the answer. Since the early 90s, the city has created a distinct identity and an integrated economic strategy. The University of Manchester has doubled in size in less than a decade – two of its scientists last year won the Nobel Prize for Physics. New developments such as MediaCity[VB4] , now home to several divisions of the BBC and ITN, promise to create the clusters of high-value activity that London currently monopolises. The city has taken stock of its major assets and sought to build on them: the area around Manchester Airport, the third busiest airport in the UK, has been designated an enterprise zone. The MetroLink – a hitherto inadequate tram system – has been extended to connect Salford Quays, the new home of the BBC and Granada Television, to an increasingly vibrant city centre.

But it won’t be enough. Government austerity has seen the number of public-private partnerships – of the sort that helped regenerate central Manchester after the 1996 IRA bomb – plummet. Private sector retrenchment has curtailed new development and investments.

“One of the curiosities of British politics… is how little the dominance of London shapes the politics of the English regions,” says Douglas Fraser, the BBC’s Scotland editor. It may yet do so. Birmingham in the late nineteenth century, with Joseph Chamberlain as Mayor, famously embarked on a heroic program of town planning and great public works. Similarly a walk along the neoclassical terraces of Grey Street in Newcastle, or an evening with the Halle Orchestra – the world’s oldest – in Manchester should remind us that municipal pride and endeavor weren’t always unique to our flourishing capital. For these peripheries to reassert themselves they must embrace charismatic characters that personify this pride.

However, attempts to introduce elected mayors in England’s major cities were overwhelmingly voted down in May. This should cause great remorse. Big personality mayors would have electrified a Northern political consciousness that has for too long been stagnant. When Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, speaks up for Edinburgh and Boris Johnson boisterously fights London’s corner, the North suffers. There is no name synonymous with the great cities of Manchester, Leeds or Newcastle. The North’s clout in the media is meagre. Strong regional titles such as the Manchester Evening News, the Guardian and the Daily Herald used to keep a finger on the northern political pulse; all are now defunct, emasculated or based in London.

For the time being, the English regions – lacking a distinct competitive advantage or identity, will continue to serve as the hinterland of Britain’s global city.

Is the North pulling away from the UK?

After an extraordinary 3 weeks inter-railing I’m hastily scrambling together a first draft for next term’s Isis, the glossy termly publication of OSPL, on the North-South divide.

The notion of a rich South and a destitute North is beaten about so much as to be caricatured. I remember playing off the lazy stereotype for most of Michaelmas term. Still, as the academic Danny Dorling is quoted in this Economist article, there is an understanding – more or less reflected in the facts – that in the North ‘there are islands of affluence in a sea of poverty’ whereas in the South the sea is of affluence.

I was keen to speak to John Micklethwait, the Editor of The Economist, the world’s most globalised publication. Last month I did. When I challenged him that London’s runaway success had promoted it into the league of prosperous metropolises at the expense of the rest of the UK, he was civilly boisterous in a fashion so characteristic of the magazine he edits. ‘The problem for London’ he told me is that ‘the rest of Britain doesn’t realise how lucky it is.’ He is surely accurate in describing the capital as ‘an engine which keeps pumping more and more money back into the system.’

Even with CrossRail, the Olympics and a generously maintained public transport system London remains a net contributor to the Exchequer whilst the Northern regions fail to return all the money to the Westminster Piggy Bank that they spend. Despite this, ‘the rest of the country tends to feel more and more resentful about it and the danger comes that you may at some time have a government that thinks it can play around with the golden goose.’ For Micklethwait the capital is to be cherished, not maligned: ‘every other country in the world would love to have a London’. And whilst ‘yes, you get steeper inequality [in relation to the rest of the country]….overall it’s an incredible bonus’.

Micklethwait notes that, unlike competitor cities such as Mayor Bloomberg’s fiefdom of New York, ‘London is totally embedded into the rest of the country’. Institutionally this is true but institutions alone cannot suppress powerful and unhealthy economic trends. Back in 2006 when the next Conservative government would ‘share the proceeds of growth’ rather than striving desperately simply to find some of it, David Cameron was very fond of an analogy described by Polly Toynbee in her book, Hard Work: Life in Low Pay BritainIf society is a caravan moving through the desert then how far do the members at the back – the allegorical poor – have to fall before we are left with two caravans, not one?

Manchester’s Royal Exchange Hall, previously the stock market of the Industrial Age – now a hotbed of Northern theatre

Personally I prefer the melted cheese analogy, which I’ve ripped off from someone somewhere, about two slices of pizza pulled further and further apart – admittedly it gets low marks for poetic flair.

In Manchester at least, times are a-changin’. One of my favourite comedy-drama shows is Cold FeetSky’s helpful cataloguing of all five series on Anytime robbed a significant portion of my productive summer. Starring James Nesbitt the show was set on location in and around the city, taking in the regenerated and gentrified districts of central Manchester and Salford – now home to MediaCity – as well as the suburbs around Didsbury and Trafford. Now over a decade old, the show’s characters personified the city Manchester has become in the wake of deindustrilaisation: cosmopolitan, educated and fun.

Living here, walking around town, I get one impression of what is going on in Manchester – and by a more tenuous extrapolation, the North. But the statistics, as well as the evident global, not national, character of Greater London, suggests to me that Northern England is becomes slowly disconnected from the rest of the UK: from Scotland and Wales by political devolution, and from the South-East by economic disaffiliation.

I would really welcome any thoughts in aid of my piece…