Our Chief Executive Nick Bowes reflects on his first month at Centre for London and considers the challenges we need to address.
On 1 June, I became only the second person to lead Centre for London when I took over as Chief Executive from my predecessor, Ben Rogers. We all owe Ben an enormous debt of gratitude for the legacy he has handed on. I’m determined to build on that precious legacy.
It’s been a busy first few weeks in the job. I’ve managed to make it into the office a few times a week. Commuting feels strange, and central London is still a lot quieter than normal. I’ve managed to have conversations with some of you and will be meeting with many more of you over coming weeks. I’ve heard your thoughts on our work, the team and what London’s challenges are – this has been enormously helpful as I think through the next chapter for Centre for London.
This is all against the backdrop of further developments within the city.
The mayoral election is fast disappearing in the rear-view mirror and Sadiq must concentrate on delivering results for the city given his term is shorter at only three years. Improving relations with the government and agreeing a shared agenda around recovery of the city – particularly the centre – will be critical.
The pressing difficulties with Transport for London’s finances show no sign of being solved any time soon. Another temporary deal, with a raft of conditions, has been agreed which at least ought to keep the buses, tubes and trains running until the autumn. It’s clear now that the planned Comprehensive Spending Review later in the year is seen as the moment to put TfL on a firmer, long-term financial footing. This is still going to need the Mayor and ministers to take some politically difficult decisions if London is going to retain a world-class public transport authority. And the Mayor should be exploring policies that will address both the financial and environmental crises in London’s transport systems – a new approach to road user charging and micromobility, for example.
Easing of restrictions
The delay in the easing of lockdown restrictions delivered a major blow to retail and hospitality businesses across the capital. While the decision was a necessary step to keep us all safe, it isn’t without ongoing economic consequence and the longer restrictions go on the less simple it will be for London simply to snap back to how it was before. Though there are signs that Londoners are increasingly happy to return to the city centre.
This month ONS reported a fall in unemployment, but London still has the highest unemployment rate of any region in the country (and is nearly 40 per cent higher than the national average). The capital’s labour market is still in deeper crisis than the rest of the UK – impacting women and young people in particular. There is a job to do to remind national government that London has been hit harder than elsewhere, as there is a misconception the capital has somehow got off lightly.
Levelling up still dominates a lot of the policy agenda, but it is still rather thin on detail. But the warning signs for London continue to be there – Moody’s downgraded TfL’s credit rating, has increased the cost of borrowing for the city’s transport authority, and cited a policy agenda that is hostile to London. Centre for Cities published another report on levelling up, and against a set of measures looked at how big the gap is between towns and cities and a degree of levelling up – interesting stuff, but the absence of any London boroughs in the same assessment is telling, and it’s highly likely a good number of them would demonstrate similarly large gaps that need levelling up. London has a job to do to ensure its enormous levelling up challenges are not airbrushed out of the debate.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that policy and decision making can move quickly when those in power want it to. That’s why this role is so important – being part of, and orchestrating, important debates about the future direction of the city and how we make London a better place to live and work is personal to me. I can’t wait to get into these big, meaty issues, working with you all and coming up with new ideas and thinking that will shape this amazing city for a generation.