Claire Harding shares findings from our focus groups, including the best ways to talk about London.
What do people think about London? We ran focus groups across England – here’s what we found.
There’s a broad consensus about what is good and bad about London
Regardless of where people lived in England, they had similar ideas about the positives and negatives of London. Differences in people’s views seem to be based more on the importance they attach to different ideas.
The good things were jobs and opportunity, diversity, and the international importance of London:
“Anyone, any background, any faith, any kind of diversity. It’s a place that anyone can settle, anyone can work and socialize.” (Outer London)
“I love it as a city, I think it’s a really fun city. It’s got history, it’s got places to go, the galleries are superb, the theatres really have everything there that we’ve always liked.” (South/Midlands)
“I think it’s probably the first place people from most other countries in the world might think of when they think of England, Britain, UK. It’s a big draw for a lot of people.” (North of England)
“You know, I think London does fly the flag for the UK.” (South of England)
But ideas about London being a place of opportunity had a negative side – Londoners noted that there are not opportunities for everyone, and people outside London felt that it was unfair that people need to travel to London for the best jobs.
“People look at as a city of opportunity, a place where you can go and almost, like, it’s almost like where the big bucks are.” (South/Midlands)
“It’s definitely a lot more expensive than anywhere else in the country for travel, for rent, for property prices, I’d say it probably tops the charts but then, it’s got the most amount of opportunity depending on what you do and where you work… so it’s a bit of a weigh up.” (Outer London)
In general, people who lived outside London were more positive about London if they visit, and some were pleasantly surprised by what they found:
“It was easier to use the Underground [than I expected], because you don’t have to queue up and work out which zones you were going to go in, because you just use your card, your bank card.” (South/Midlands)
“It’s even more multicultural [than what I thought], it’s even more a mixture of things.” (North of England)
People thought that the bad things were high costs, crowding, dirt and pollution, and crime. Unsurprisingly, Londoners were more concerned about the cost of living in the capital, whereas people outside London were more concerned about the costs involved in visiting, such as eating out.
“[T]here are a lot more pros than cons for me with London despite its cost, despite its pollution, despite its crime.” (Outer London)
“I don’t want to go [to London]… It’s too big, it’s too busy. It’s full on too much for me now, I just don’t want to do it.” (North of England)
“I could probably work in Starbucks in Liverpool and still pay my rent and have a car and live on my own here, but I couldn’t in London.” (North of England)
The fact that differences in how people across England see London is largely a matter of degree rather than totally different ideas should give us some hope that it is possible to work towards a shared national vision of London’s role.
Divides on poverty in London
Londoners were – unsurprisingly – well aware of poverty in the city. Some felt that poverty where they lived was being ignored, drawing attention to the need for more equality within the city:
“[There is a] perception of what is going on in the borough [but] the concerns and the problems that we have here is being overlooked by the government.” (Inner London)
“I think in Greenwich there’s a perception because Greenwich town centre is very touristy and we’ve got the Naval College, and it all looks very nice and a lot of tourists come here. There’s a perception that possibly it’s quite successful but actually Greenwich borough is vast and goes out all the way to Thamesmead and places like Plumstead where there’s actually quite a lot of poverty.” (Outer London)
People who lived both inside and outside London were aware that there is poverty here and tended to agree that London is divided into “haves” and “have nots” or rich and poor. Unsurprisingly, people in London who said they were living on lower incomes were particularly aware of poverty.
People who lived in London were more likely than people living outside it to be aware of different levels of poverty in different parts of the city. People who lived outside London tended to be less aware of the extent or scale of poverty, and some were surprised or in some cases suspicious when the moderators showed them statistics about this.
Some people felt that since there are a lot of rich people in London, London should be responsible for solving poverty here. Implicit in this is perhaps an idea that London should be more responsible for solving poverty within its own borders – something many of London’s leaders have called for in recent decades.
Shared scepticism about the government’s agenda
Although some people outside London felt that the capital is a wealthy place and that it gets more than its share of resources, this did not translate to strong support for the government’s levelling up agenda. For some people this was because they did not believe that the government would redistribute money to them in ways that made a difference:
“It’s one of them that looks good on paper and, like, promising and everything like that, but to me it’s just one of the manifestos that the government put across but will never actually implement across the country.” (North of England)
Others were suspicious of the political logic of the agenda, seeing it as an attempt to buy the votes of Northern MPs, or felt that it was unhelpful to think purely on the grounds of geography rather than need:
“The Conservative government are so concentrated on keeping those MPs that they’re heavily investing in the North, or heavily investing in the idea of the North. I don’t know if they’re actually giving any money to it in all honesty, but they’re heavily invested in talking about the North because they want to keep those MPs.” (Outer London)
People were also sceptical about the counter-argument sometimes made by advocates for London that supporting London is vital to ensure the success of the UK:
“I just think, why should it just be London? Why can’t it be other cities in England as well?” (North of England)
“So yes London should stay the [financial] hub, but the hub should grow to incorporate the whole of the UK.” (Outer London)
London’s financial institutions and economic power did not come up much in discussions about the capital until people were prompted about them – tourism was mentioned much more as having an economic benefit for the whole country. Both in London and outside it, some people felt that tax take was irrelevant since they believed so many companies dodge tax.
Little personal animosity towards Londoners
From around the time of the financial crisis to the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, anti-London comments were common in the media and in public perceptions: often framed around “metropolitan liberal elites” as opposed to “ordinary working people” and focussed on places like Islington (indeed, people in outer London were often quite negative about people in inner London).
In this research, we did not find much negativity about Londoners themselves, or any particular group of Londoners, and diversity was nearly universally seen as a positive. While there was some negativity towards “the rich” and towards politicians, this was not expressed in particularly geographical terms.
“As soon as [politicians] think they’ve got a chance of getting in power they seem to forget about where they came from. That’s more about the government and the way it works than London necessarily. It could be somewhere else instead, they might do the same thing.” (North of England)
This seems to mark at least some softening of some of the most difficult anti-London attitudes of the last few years, and might make it a bit easier for London’s advocates to make the case for London.
Lessons for the best way to make the case for London
Talking about London is inherently hard because it’s a big and diverse place. But these focus groups and our wider research on London and levelling up show that the most affective approaches are those that:
- Emphasise London’s diversity and its cultural offer when encouraging visits from people elsewhere in England.
- Emphasise London’s international and tourist status when speaking about its contribution to national life. Put less emphasis on London’s tax or spending contribution or the role of the political and financial institutions based here.
- Point to shared values, shared moments of celebration and shared concerns between people who live in London and outside it.
- Acknowledge that London isn’t perfect – and in particular that it can be polluted and expensive – showing that Londoners and non-Londoners agree about these issues.
- Speak about the opportunity that London offers, but recognise that this doesn’t work for everyone and London could be a better place for people on low incomes.
- Acknowledge and support calls for projects which bring more opportunities close to where people live, inside and outside London.
- Speak about different places and people within London, using stories rather than statistics to talk about poverty and need.
Finally, the research suggests that people who live elsewhere but visit London, or have lived in London in the past, tend to hold more positive views about it.
Making it possible for more people in England to experience London – and indeed making it possible for people living in London to experience other parts of England – might make it easier to foster positive perceptions about different places.
Claire Harding is Research Director at Centre for London.
Details of our focus groups
As part of our levelling up project, we ran five focus groups for adults living in England with our research partners Savanta and Toynbee Hall.
Savanta held two groups in outer London, one in the South/Midlands, and one in the North of England. Toynbee Hall conducted one group in inner London.
All groups were held online.
The groups were conducted in late July and early August 2022 – before Liz Truss became Prime Minister and the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, in which London played a crucial role.