London is a great city. By many yardsticks it is world-leading. Its assets, institutions, infrastructure and reputation – coupled with Londoners’ dynamism, ideas and creativity – create enormous prosperity. As a result, London makes a huge contribution to the UK both economically and culturally. In recent decades, its growth in population, jobs and productivity have been driven in part by greater openness, freer markets and deeper integration into the global economy. For those that can afford the high costs there are few better places to live, work and play.
Alongside the affluent, however, millions live in poverty, have insecure and poorly paid jobs, experience homelessness, or have a low quality of life. These inequalities blight far too many lives, and hold back the progress of the city as a whole. Blind to these aspects, some think London’s success blunts the rest of the UK. This increasingly prevalent view needs to be challenged, not least because of the dire potential consequences for the most vulnerable Londoners. What’s more, London must also recover from coronavirus, tackle doubts raised about the future role of cities, cut the pollution that causes poor air quality and global warming, and reposition itself as a global centre outside the European Union.
London’s leaders can and must do better. Based on a full year of researching London’s biggest issues, listening to Londoners, and working with businesses, universities, London government, charities and community groups, we found that:
- There is a strong consensus that more needs to be done to make London fairer and take action on the climate.
- Londoners are highly concerned about the interlinked issues of personal safety, health, and protection from future epidemics.
- Londoners also prioritise housing and homelessness, as well as a recovery that delivers jobs and economic growth after the pandemic.
Responding to these concerns, we propose a new vision and ambition for London and Londoners. We also suggest possible foundations for a new narrative of London’s relationship with the UK.
London has been pummelled by the pandemic. Yet we find that our city has far from reached its peak. London remains an extraordinary engine of human relationships, and these feed its dynamism, innovation and social fabric. We should enhance its power to connect us – but that is not enough in itself. We also need greater protections for all, especially for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.
In 1965 London’s boundaries were enlarged and renamed “Greater London”. Now we are calling for a truly greater London, a more dynamic and fairer city. A greater London would be greater for Britain – and, by taking the lead in tackling environmental challenges, it would be greater for the planet too.
Public policy should shape the future rather than just respond to it. This report aims to kickstart fresh thinking among those in power on what Londoners want from their city. Together, they can bring about a London that works better for all Londoners, for Britain and for the world.
Our vision for a greater London is for every Londoner to…
- Have enough money to afford everyday essentials.
- Have a home which is in good repair, large enough for their needs, and where they feel secure.
- Not suffer from illnesses which could be prevented through better homes, neighbourhoods and employment.
- Have access to high streets, parks and public spaces that work well for families, friendships, businesses and communities.
- Have access to learning throughout their life so they can use their talents to the full.
and for London to be…
- Rapidly post-carbon, adopting new circular economy and pro-nature approaches as the new normal.
- The best physically and digitally connected city on the planet.
- The safest city anywhere, especially for women and girls.
- The most welcoming city in the world for visitors, the hardworking, the talented, and those most in need.
- Governed to the highest standards – including preparedness against future threats – and home to the most innovative and dynamic markets, businesses and organisations in the world.
What we mean by fairness
Throughout this project, Londoners have been told us that our city needs to be fairer. (We agree.) However, though very few would disagree with this, people sometimes have different ideas about what “fairness” entails. For London to make a good life possible for its citizens, compete internationally for economic development, and respond effectively to the climate crisis, we think the following interlocking aspects of fairness are essential.
A decent minimum
Everyone deserves a safe and secure home, enough money for food and essential bills, access to essential services, and good healthcare. Currently, many Londoners lack these, and poverty rates remain the highest in the UK after housing costs are removed. This causes great unhappiness, but it also stops Londoners – especially children – from achieving their potential. It’s hard to do homework when there’s no space and not enough healthy food.
Access to educational opportunity
Some of London’s schools are among the best in the country for supporting social mobility, but too many people still don’t have the chance to get the qualifications they need for a real choice of jobs. Further education – and adult education for people who need to reskill during their career – are particular barriers.
Freedom from discrimination
Life in London is harder if you are from a minority community, and for women compared to men. Consequently, a significant majority of the population are in at least one group that experiences systematic discrimination. Regrettably, this blights millions of lives and makes it harder for people to find the right housing, access their chosen jobs and training, and get their voices heard. Beyond being unfair, it also means the city doesn’t have access to the range of talent it needs to succeed.
A political voice
In an ideal democracy, people from every part of London’s community – in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, social/ professional background and more – would be represented, have a voice and be listened to. On some measures, London’s political cohort of MPs, Assembly Members and councillors has become more diverse in recent years, but many Londoners still feel locked out of the decisions which shape their lives and communities.
In London and other big cities, disadvantaged and excluded communities are already bearing the brunt of polluted air, the risks of excess heat, and more frequent extreme weather events caused by climate change. If decarbonisation policies are not handled well, they could disadvantage the poor and other marginalised groups even more. We will not achieve net zero unless we bring all London’s communities together and ensure that the costs of decarbonisation are met by those most able to pay them.
Why we are optimistic about London’s future
Cities are, arguably, humanity’s greatest invention. 1 Over the last 50 years, urbanisation has gathered pace globally. More than half the world’s population now lives in cities, producing 80 per cent of total economic output. Cities are also part of the solution to our multiple environmental crises, being dense and efficient as well as crucibles of ingenuity and innovation
The COVID-19 pandemic has now raised the spectre of a post-city future. It has accelerated mass adoption of online tools for collaboration, suggesting to some that the age of urbanisation might wane – especially as travel and consumption are contentious as never before in an age of climate emergency. Few places have been subject to this speculation as much as London, and some argue that time’s up on the phenomenon of the densely packed megacity. 2 We disagree.
Understanding the factors that drive the success of cities over time suggests good grounds for optimism about London’s future. Like other successful cities, London’s prosperity and growth have, for two millennia, been driven by two essential ingredients: the conditions for networks of high-quality relationships, and protection of its citizens. Together, these drive business success, public sector innovation, good governance, social support and resilience. London has been one of most successful cities in history because Londoners have often found the right balance between protection against threats and openness to newcomers. This adaptation created a thriving centre of trade and eventually a major seat of political power. For a while it was the most populous city on the planet.
Although London long ago lost that crown, it is still amongst the most economically productive places on Earth, and one of the most desirable to locate in. This is due to a number of factors, including its physical density, wide labour pool, extensive transport network, stable legal and regulatory environment, use of English, large international population and far-reaching global connections. London’s reputation, brand and identity remain among the strongest of all global cities.
At the core of this success has been the city’s ability to host and connect millions of people. The post-COVID-19 era will undoubtedly see more home working, with some local neighbourhoods flourishing as a result. But we expect that Londoners will also continue to flock to the city’s centre for the benefits of in-person collaboration, networking, and the rich hospitality and cultural offer. For many, these will outweigh the costs and disruption of commuting, at least for part of the working week. Collaboration of groups, particularly at scale, generates more and better outputs, as well as new connections, ideas and innovations. This type of collaboration is humankind’s magic power, 3 and cities are its most tangible expression.
As we have shown, London is at a crossroads today. But if the city can reinvigorate itself as an engine of relationships and dynamism, it can both revive and thrive – countering the threat of an economy largely transacted online, and acting as an antidote to hardship, insecurity and environmental disaster. Done right, we could embark on a new chapter of inclusive, sustainable prosperity.