It been widely recognized for many years now that, compared to other countries, the UK under-invests in infrastructure and its built environment. Indeed, this is one of those rare things on which both the left and right agree.
We have not built enough houses, rail links, energy generating facilities, or invested enough in our green infrastructure and flood prevention. France is often criticized for having an inflexible labour market, yet the French are at least as economically productive as the British for the simple reason, the experts say, that they have invested more in towns and cities and the things that facilitate and connect them.
London has been little different from the rest of the country in this respect – no doubt because London has for too long been dependent on central government for capital funding. It will be at least 50 years from when proposals for a Crossrail-like scheme were first developed, to its opening in 2018. We have dithered about a new London airport since the 1960s. And, most uncontroversially, we have clearly failed to build enough homes, including affordable ones.
All credit then to Mayor and his team for deciding to produce a long-term infrastructure plan. The draft plan, published on Wednesday, is in many ways an impressive document, showing that there is plenty of ambitious, far sighted thinking going on at City Hall. It effectively highlights the long term pressures and challenges facing the city and underscores the case for increasing investment if it is going to accommodate population growth, improve on quality of life and remain economically competitive – a leading global city. The plan is much more than a shopping list. It identifies ways in which managing the capital’s growth could be made more cost effective and money saved – for instance by taking a more strategic approach to planning and doing more to promote a more sustainable economy, which reuses and recycles rather than creating waste. Though the draft plan does emphasise the unprecedented scale of investment that is going to be required, the inadequacy of current over-centralised financial arrangements, and the need to think much more creatively about how we fund infrastructure going forward.
But there is one major and pretty glaring weakness in the document. The Mayor and his team seem to suffer from the belief that London is a city state. Yes, mention is made of the role that towns and cities beyond London might play in accommodating London’s growth – including some new thoughts on the potential of struggling coastal towns of Kent and Sussex. But the needs of the rest of the country or London’s contribution to it are not mentioned once across the whole document or the presentation published with it.
Yet London we know that London has an image problem. As a recent Centre for London and Centre for Cities report showed, less than a quarter of people outside London think the capital makes a positive contribution to their local economy. The city will find it increasingly hard to get what it wants from central government – whether more spending or greater financial independence – unless it can bring the rest of the country along with it.
As it is, the plan risks coming across as an argument for giving London lots more money.
Of course Boris and his team tend to get the point. And to his credit, The Mayor has developed an effective alliance with the ‘Core’ English cities – the week before last they came together at the House of Commons to re-iterate their call to give all cities more tax powers. Nevertheless the failure of the infrastructure plan to mention anything about the rest of the country does suggest that GLA easily falls back into insularity.
A positive suggestion: Boris should set up a commission to explore what contribution London already makes to the UK and how this can be optimised. He might want to invite both the government, the devolved nations and the core cities to take part in it – it could even be run jointly. It would look at London’s economic role but also its broader political and cultural one. That would send out the message – which the infrastructure plan conspicuously fails to do – that London appreciates that it is a capital city and not just a global one.