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London Futures: What would a fairer London look like?

This blog post is based on a discussion held in February 2021, as part of London Futures. Participants included local politicians, academics, policymakers and campaigners on key issues related to equality and fairness. The event was held under the Chatham House Rule.

Have your say in London’s future

We often read that coronavirus has ‘drawn attention to inequality’ and that the Black Lives Matter movement has ‘drawn attention to racism’. This is of course not true for people who are experiencing the effects of inequality and racism – both overt and structural – every day.  Neither is it true about the recent public attention to women’s safety following the death of Sarah Everard – women already knew that they are often harassed by men on the street.

But coronavirus and the recovery do present an unusual political opportunity to push for change that addresses deep, structural inequalities in our society. Recovery from moments of crisis in the past has sometimes led to really significant changes to British society, particularly mass housebuilding after World War One and the creation of the welfare state after World War Two. A lot of our roundtable participants were enthusiastic about the opportunities for real change, especially for and with young Londoners. But others felt that concern about equality might become a short-lived trend among political and business decisionmakers, with a quick return to business as usual.

Londoners left out of levelling up

Noone who is concerned about equality would ever disagree with helping people living in England’s poorest areas, but many are concerned that the political discussion ignores the fact that London has extremes of both wealth and poverty. Our participants were worried that the current government is not particularly sympathetic to the needs of London – the levelling up agenda is explicitly about increasing prosperity in areas outside the capital. Poor Londoners are becoming invisible in policy discussions, making it hard to advocate for better support. Poverty rates in London after housing costs are the highest in the country but Londoners are relatively protected by good public and voluntary services – if these were allowed to decline, life would get much harder.

As raised at our roundtable discussion on health, housing and work were generally viewed by participants as the biggest drivers of inequality in London, and both were seen to be becoming more unfair. (It’s interesting that schools came up less in this discussion, perhaps a tribute to how well London’s schools do at supporting disadvantaged students to get good results). Coronavirus has of course put more pressure on everyone’s living space, but the problems of overcrowding, poor quality and insecure tenure in London are far from new and are heavily concentrated among Black, Asian and minority ethnic Londoners, as well as those on lower incomes. Housing for key workers, especially those on low incomes, is a particular challenge: we’ve written more about this here.

Pandemic work-life has exacerbated inequalities

The growth of home working is a complicated factor here: it exacerbates some forms of inequality but has the potential to alleviate others. Whether you can do your job from home is a key predictor of coronavirus risk; in this sense, everyone who can do so is very lucky. But those who have a separate, comfortable space to work from are undoubtedly luckier and these tend to be older and wealthier Londoners, who have the most housing space per person. For parents, home working plus childcare is a special sort of hell, but home working with school or childcare open can make life easier as it removes the time, cost and stress of the commute. In the long term, more people having the option to work from home would reduce the chances of mothers being forced out of the workplace. It can also be an advantage for carers and people with some disabilities, including mental health problems as well as physical access requirements.

Of course, we don’t really know how long home working will last, and in what form. Some of our participants felt that there was a real risk that wealthier Londoners who can work from home all the time would move out altogether, leaving behind them a poorer city, with less retail consumption and a lower tax base. There is no doubt that some will leave but how many, and whether they will be replaced, remains an open question. Depopulation can be a driver for inequality if it leads to poorer people being concentrated in poor areas with poor services, but it might also lead to a drop in house prices, especially for private rent, which could significantly drive down poverty rates.

Now and in the future, work to make London fairer will need to go hand in hand with work to make London more sustainable. Participants told us about some tensions here, for example around housing: some planning applications for new homes are being opposed on the basis that they will add to carbon emissions. But in general, they were optimistic that – with enough political will – the two priorities can be addressed together, for example through creating high quality, well-targeted green jobs programmes. Listening to and working with young people was seen as particularly important here: they are the people who will need to live with our policy decisions, and they often have the best ideas.

This phase of London Futures has been made possible with the generous support of our Funders, City Bridge Trust, Impact on Urban Health, Mastercard, and Van and Eva DuBose, our Major Sponsors, Greater London Authority, and the London Borough of Lambeth, and our Supporting Sponsors, Bosch, Port of London Authority, University of London, and Wei Yang & Partners.

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Claire Harding is Research Director at Centre for London. Read more from her here.