This blog post is based on a discussion held in February 2021, as part of London Futures. Participants included local politicians, council officers and academics. The event was held under the Chatham House Rule.
According to Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England, the combined challenges of credit (think crunch, circa 2008), climate and coronavirus are forcing us to think about the future in new ways. The London twist on these intertwined challenges peppers in Brexit, a clean air crisis and now the risk that we will value city life a little bit less in the future, and so may stay in the suburbs, or, worse, exit the city. Sure, there are still plenty hankering after the bright lights of the city centre, but it does look possible that overall demand may reduce, even if only because we make fewer trips to the office.
Will this mean an inevitable decline in London’s economic prospects? And what does it even mean when we talk about prosperity these days, given our evolving understanding of resilience, nationalism and eco-catastrophe? These questions were at the heart of our recent expert roundtable on London’s prosperity, economy and international connections.
London’s standing in the world is still very high. It remains one of the best regarded and most economically significant cities on the planet, despite recent headwinds. This position comes after four decades of population growth, driven by a slow-motion explosion of high value, internationally-oriented service industry clusters and supported by a rich cultural environment.
But coronavirus has reinforced a sense that the city needs to tackle deep-seated issues including inequality, poverty, prejudice, congestion, low pay, unsafe streets and unaffordable housing. And newer challenges confront us: how to clean London’s air and decarbonise; the precautions we need to take to prevent further epidemics and the national ‘levelling up’ agenda, which risks pushing London down.
Participants were clear that as a city, London needs to find its place in the levelling up debate, transcending its role as the country’s capital. How might London better articulate its role and contribute more? Positive rhetoric could help, as well as clear propositions to Whitehall, such as on financing our transport system. But we need to balance the impulse for galvanising slogans with humility. ‘London is the greatest city in the world’ might work for drawing in talent and tourists, but not in building collaboration with other UK city regions. Perhaps we need more of a ‘show, don’t tell’ attitude to marketing our successes.
Could London instead be reframed as the world’s front door to Britain? It would help if we could more clearly articulate what London is best at. Might London be able to emulate Singapore and be the crux between the competing technology-trade spheres of the USA and China? Will London and the UK, having rejected the EU, need to choose between them? Or can London prosper alone on its merits: strong institutions, and leadership on standards and norm-setting, which could be crucial in reshaping the city as a conduit for the new services of the future. Either way it seems clear that the fundamentals, like good infrastructure and extensive international links, matter to sustain and build London’s gravitational pull on talent, innovation and creativity. And becoming a leading green city increasingly looks like the new centre ground, and should stir and reshape our definition of prosperity.
Participants did raise concerns that Londoners have been pummelled by insecurity and worsening conditions. An already grossly unequal city has seen terrible disparities in death rates and unemployment because of coronavirus. ‘London is not successful for enough people’ captured the sentiment around the virtual table. Housing is a high priority, and so then, how to build more, or cheaper homes needs urgent attention, including re-examining the tax system. On the future of central London the optimists held sway. ‘The CAZ [Central Activities Zone] will roar back’ thought one participant, though there does appear to be more risk of not bouncing back fast, compared to the financial crash. Key to this will be the extent to which London returns as a visitor destination, and as a home for the HQs of large businesses. Neither is guaranteed.
The geography of the relationship between living, working and playing is being redrawn, and its impact on key aspects of city life remain still far from clear. But the convulsions of the pandemic felt in retail and in the ‘vanilla’ office market could be long term and profound. On targeting business sectors to grow our experts felt the ‘missions’ approach adopted in the government’s now forgotten Industrial Strategy, also used by the London Recovery Board, may have a role. But direct public sector support of industrial ‘winners’ remains largely taboo.
Overall there was plenty of agreement on the broad direction of travel. Fairer, greener, definitely. More liveable, yes. Talent, trade, travel hub, check. Diversity, creativity, tolerance too. More tricky, but still needed, are: marrying a global outlook with a local focus; travel vs carbon (and coronavirus); making housing more affordable; evolving institutions to be more fit for purpose. This, as well as needing to keep an eye on innovation and emerging city competitors internationally, and making a new pitch for the city.
A post-Covid London then needs to balance confidence with humility, climate with growth, liveability with competition. The core of the city’s economic success, stripped back, is the meeting of people, collaboration and the interchange of ideas, as the wellsprings of innovation and creativity. Fostering this, and spreading its benefits to more Londoners, and beyond the M25, would shore up London’s position as one of the great city economies of the 21st century.
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.