London has more residents than Scotland and Wales combined and plays an outsized economic role, so why does it get so little attention?
This could be described as the ‘levelling-up’ general election. The manifestos of all three of the main Westminster parties reflects a narrative that has become gradually more dominant over the last few years: that London has been the favoured child of the political establishment for too long and it’s time for other regions and cities to feel the love.
It is of course true that the UK has long been characterised by exceptionally large regional inequalities. But this is not the full story. The UK performance as whole since the financial crisis has been woeful. Employment is at a record high. But productivity is at an historic low, economic growth has faltered and earnings have stagnated. Adult participation in learning is at a 20-year low. Our failure to build more homes or address growing housing costs have fallen particularly heavily on younger and poorer households.
The UK’s economic travails have hit Londoners hard. Wealth inequality has shot up and living standards have been squeezed. The proportion of Londoners being paid below the London Living Wage has increased from 13 per cent in 2008 to 22 per cent today. Poverty rates have remained much higher in London than across the country as a whole – 37 per cent of London children live in poverty, compared to 30 per cent nationally. Around half of all households in temporary accommodation are in the capital.
Even if we set these problems aside, the view that the best way of helping ‘left behind places’ is to divert resources and focus away from the capital does not stand up to scrutiny.
As one of the world’s leading cities – a global economic and cultural superpower – London plays a vital role in propelling the national economy. London is home to around 13 per cent of the UK’s population but produced 23 per cent of its wealth and paid in an average of £12.7 billion a year more through taxation than it received in public spending in the ten years up to 2014 – a contribution that has increased over recent years. 46 per cent of business visitors to England head for London and 55 per cent of the world’s largest 500 companies’ European HQs are based in London and the Wider South East.
Rebalancing the UK’s economy would be good not just for the rest of the country but for London too. It has the potential to relieve pressure on the capital while further boosting its economy and economic activity across the country. But, by the same token, weakening London won’t lead to a resurgence of other regions. On the contrary it will hurt our ability to invest in the infrastructure, homes and skills on which the prosperity of the whole country, including its ‘left behind places’, depends. Regional growth is not a zero-sum game. Historically the rest of the UK has done well when London has flourished and the other way around. We depend on each other.
London and the manifestos
One in every seven of us might live in London, but the city is barely mentioned in any of the major parties’ manifestos. This is striking when compared to their treatment of Scotland and Wales. London has a larger population than Scotland and Wales combined and like them, has its own devolved government and unique challenges and opportunities but it is barely mentioned.
In so far as it mentioned, it tends to be as a model that the parties will apply to other areas. So Labour promises apply a London model of school improvement (the ‘London Challenge’) to the rest of the country. And the Conservatives commit to funding upgrades to city region’s ’bus, tram and train services to make them as good as London’s’. The term ‘levelling-up’ and ‘level-up’ is repeated again and again in their manifesto. While the Lib Dems do at least commit to supporting Crossrail 2, the Labour Party does not make a single commitment that is London-specific, and the Conservatives’ promises are limited to the creation of a Windrush memorial in the capital.
It is of course flattering that all parties seem to see London as something to be emulated – and there is lot to admire. But London’s voters are looking for more than back handed compliments. Some attention to London’s unique challenges and opportunities would be welcome.