With July coming to a close, our Chief Executive Nick Bowes summarises this month’s policy talking points for the capital.
As parliament empties and MPs head back to their constituencies for summer recess, here’s a quick round up of the big policy developments from the past month.
Some detail on levelling up
The Prime Minister gave his first major speech on the government’s flagship ‘levelling up’ policy. Though light on detail, the PM did state that levelling up must not be at the expense of levelling down London. This is a welcome shift in tone and intention, but as metro regions, local authorities and organisations clammer to influence the government’s promised Levelling Up White Paper, we must all be mindful not to return to an oversimplified ‘south bad, north good’ debate (take note, please, Andy Burnham, The Northern Research Group and others). It mustn’t be forgotten that London has some of the highest rates of poverty and in-work poverty in the country. Just because you can see the Shard from your kitchen window doesn’t mean that you can pay your rent or that you have the skills you need to get a well-paid job. For levelling up to be successful, it must be matched by meaningful devolution that allows places to decide what would work best for their local area, rather than new pots of restricted funding and decisions taken by Whitehall. And (often legitimate) anxieties of colleagues in the north shouldn’t be misdirected at London as a city when often it is Whitehall and ministers who are the real target of unhappiness.
The elephant in the room – the pandemic has hit London’s economy hard
It is concerning how no one seems to want to talk about just how hard the pandemic has hit London’s economy. New furlough and unemployment data both released this month paint a bleak picture; the city has consistently had the highest number of staff on furlough out of any English region since July 2020; and although unemployment is down, London still has the highest unemployment rate of any region – figures that have been reiterated by partners including London First at this months’ APPG for London meeting. This all feeds into a dangerous assumption that somehow all is fine in London, and that the capital will just bounce back under its own steam. And this risks the city’s recovery, and given how important London is to the UK, the whole country’s recovery too. Earlier this month I was on BBC Radio London talking about this very issue, and the host expressed surprise at these facts and asked why more people weren’t talking about how much worse the city has been hit – showing the scale of the challenge there is to highlight this.
In support of London’s high streets
More than a third of Londoners live within 200 metres of a high street. These are not just places to shop, they’re a place of work, somewhere to meet friends and access essential services. Communities must play a meaningful role in shaping their local centres, and new funding from City Hall this month will offer some much-needed support to bring our high streets back to life after lockdown. But the government has a role to play too. Their long term plan to evolve and regenerate the UK’s high streets was also released this month, just as coronavirus restrictions were loosened. This should have gone further and reconsidered the proposed extension of permitted development rights, to allow conversion of commercial-to-residential conversion, which risks losing places for people to visit on local high streets. The government should also introduce legislation to make it easier to identify owners of vacant buildings and review the powers of local authorities to bring these places back into use.
Transport us to the future
This month saw the publication of the government’s transport decarbonisation plan. Banning the sale of diesel and petrol heavy goods vehicles, much like cars and vans, is the right thing to do. But we aren’t moving fast enough – just three per cent of cars on our roads are electric. We think the government needs to continue to raise its ambitions on reaching net-zero, much like London, which is leading the way with a 2030 target. And it also needs to take bold actions to create a greener transport system, like road pricing and legalising some micromobility vehicles.
I’ll end this month’s policy roundup with a familiar plea: London desperately needs a fair and long-term financial settlement for its world-class transport authority. We won’t be able to achieve a decarbonised transport system in the capital without properly funding Transport for London.