A mammoth month for London policy developments saw big changes for the future of the capital’s transport, borough leaders and plenty more. Our Chief Executive Nick Bowes has the full breakdown below:
Shock results, exceeded expectations and high drama were on full display this month… and that was just the Eurovision Song Contest. May promised big changes for politics in London, and certainly delivered plenty of talking points. Below is my breakdown of what we saw:
London’s local election swings
Polling day had Londoners take to the ballot box to have their say in who should be running the capital’s 32 boroughs. Voting took place against a backdrop of an unpopular national government, concerns about the rising cost of living and rumblings about the city being neglected by the levelling up focus on the Midlands and the north.
For Labour, it was a case of three up, three down. Early in the counting, the party made stunning gains. The wins in Wandsworth and Barnet were an indication of the party continuing to make inroads with voters in the capital, but the shock of the night was Westminster turning red for the first time ever – a result far beyond the expectations of most.
Labour’s initial celebrations were deflated by a hat-trick of high-profile losses the next day, losing control of Harrow, Tower Hamlets and Croydon. Each of these results has its own story to tell, with fascinating insight into the nature of local politics – from the changing attitudes of key demographics in Harrow and frustration with financial mismanagement in Croydon to Lutfur Rahman’s stunning re-emergence with the Aspire party being a clear statement of his local popularity.
What, then, does this all mean for the Conservatives in London? Yes, they’ll be pleased they gained Harrow and Croydon (although the margin of victory in the latter was razor thin), but the Tories still ended up down over 100 councillors in London – 2018 had previously been their lowest total, with few believing it could shrink much more. Already, following the election results, a debate has started among some senior Conservatives in London about how the party should respond. Former Putney MP and Cabinet Minister, Justine Greening penned a piece on the dangers for the party of leaving London behind.
The current attitude towards London by both major parties at a national level – the Tories perhaps seeing London as unimportant to them in Westminster, and Labour taking their dominance in London for granted – leaves the city’s needs and interests way down the priority list. Not only does this risk the city’s extensive levelling up challenges failing to get the attention they deserve, but London’s global success could be put at risk by underinvestment in housing and infrastructure. With the latter, this risks not only London being poorer, but the whole country.
As the new regimes settle down, leaders are being elected and already there have been one or two surprises. Not only is there change at the leader level, but unprecedented churn at the Chief Executive level with many new faces and more appointments due in the coming months.
The Elizabeth line is here at last
Nearly 50 years after concrete plans for the project were first discussed, and 14 years after the approval of its present-day version, London finally welcomed the Elizabeth line this month. It provides the capital with a much-needed shot in the arm after all the difficulties it has had to contend with since the pandemic and, crucially, is a testament to what can be achieved through long-term cross-party consensus on what matters for the city’s best interests; the project survived through both Labour and Conservative governments and two changes of Mayor of London. It was funded through a complicated mix of central Government and London funding sources, with the city contributing 70% of the total cost.
The Elizabeth line is an engineering marvel that I’ve had the opportunity to experience first-hand, being lucky enough to get a sneak preview earlier in the month, followed by my prompt arrival on opening day as it now forms part of my journey to work. The expansive platforms, shiny new stations and enormous trains are a real treat, but the increase in capacity it brings to London’s public transport system and the changes it will make to east-west journeys will alter the way people think about the city.
Going significantly over budget and taking considerably longer to get running than initially expected are both unacceptable, and there will rightly be a post-mortem about what went wrong and how the same mistakes are not repeated. But for most Londoners, these will soon be forgotten as their journey times and comfort improve.
The opening has sparked a conversation about what happens next. Just last week, the new Northern line platform and entrance at Bank station opened, and later in the year the London Overground extension to Barking Riverside is due to go into service. But there is currently little prospect of the two major schemes next in the priority list for the city – the Bakerloo Line extension and Crossrail 2 – moving beyond the drawing board. Words from the Prime Minister at the Elizabeth line opening will have encouraged London’s leaders about the prospect of Crossrail 2 happening but putting together the funding required at a time when TfL hasn’t the money to run existing services looks decidedly difficult.
E-scooter extension and ULEZ expansion
With the Elizabeth line taking headlines this month, it was easy to miss two other big developments for the future of London transport: the short-term extension of London’s e-scooter trials until 20 November and the further expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone.
Micromobility has so far proven increasingly popular with Londoners, with ever-increasing sales and road usage of e-scooters despite it currently being illegal to use them on public highways. In response to this, the Government has made clear its intention to expand the legalisation of e-scooters on public roads across England. Rather than push back against this new form of transport, city leaders need to ensure the right safety measures are in place to make e-scooters part of a green and sustainable future for London’s transport network.
A major step towards a greener and more sustainable London is the Mayor’s proposed expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone to cover all of London, which TfL officially began public consultation on last week. This is a clear sign that the Mayor’s focus continues to be on cleaning up London’s air – and using ULEZ to do it – but the new proposal needs complementary measures to ensure the least-well-off aren’t hit hard by added costs and that public transport can improve to fill the void of reduced car usage.
Ultimately, Centre for London believes only a pay-per-mile road user charging scheme will deliver the transformational change needed to cut congestion and promote active travel, but the Mayor’s new proposals are a useful stepping stone towards greener transport in London. Make sure to watch our latest event on the role that e-scooters can play in achieving this.
London Drugs Commission
The Mayor created ripples with the announcement, on his trip to California, that he was establishing a London Drugs Commission to be chaired by Lord Charlie Falconer QC, the former Lord Chancellor. Noticeably, the Mayor hasn’t said either way what his view is on the decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis, but it has certainly provoked a political storm, coming in for criticism from the Government as well as from some in the Mayor’s own party. This one is going to run and run. This one is going to run and run.
Other highlights this past month include:
- City Hall produced a shortlist of the best neighbourhoods in London to live in, guaranteed to annoy everyone who thinks their corner of the city is best.
- Research published also highlighted the ‘welfare value’ of open green space, with Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath in the nation’s top ten.
- The launch of the new Bloomberg News service coincided with the release of their new report which cast doubt on progress with levelling up, suggesting that on some measures the gap has actually widened.
- Hampton’s Estate Agents also published research which shows the Covid-induced exodus from the city is now in reverse as people flock back to London.
- Think tank Onward produced a report on levelling up in Oldham, which cast doubt on relying solely on public transport investment as a means to level up.
- The new Chair of the Policy & Resources Committee at the City of London Corporation – the de facto leader of the authority in charge of this historic part of the city – has laid out his vision for the Square Mile as he takes up the reins.
- New data from the ONS shines a light on the extent to which hybrid working is here to stay post pandemic.
- The Black Equity Organisation, a new group promoting social justice and equity in Britain’s black community, has been established.
- In good news, London has retained its crown as Europe’s technology hub.
- And finally, the opening of the Elizabeth Line has seen TfL produce an updated tube map. Given how much purists and traditionalists fiercely guard the integrity of the tube map, how the new line was added to the existing tangle of stations and lines was always going to prove controversial. The only thing more controversial is the debate over whether the Elizabeth line is a tube line or a rail line (According to TfL, it is not a tube line).