Three decades of growth have propelled London from a declining, depopulating and written-off city to a surging metropolis at the centre of international networks for people, ideas and trade. When we first embarked on this project in 2019, however, it felt for the first time in a generation that London’s continued success could not be taken for granted.
A number of factors came together to create this uncertainty. First, Brexit raised questions about London’s future role as an outward-facing global trading city; second, resentment from the rest of the UK was seeping into public policy narratives and shifting them in a direction increasingly hostile towards London.
However, back then we could not have foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the city hard in spring 2020. Thousands of Londoners lost their lives, and most have been affected by the virus in some way or other. The disruption caused by lockdowns and other restrictions has also raised enormous questions: could changes to the way we live and work undermine the very basis of London’s success?
While it still feels too early to know whether these are permanent structural changes, what we do know – from our own work and from other studies – is that Londoners have reassessed what matters to them and their families. Some of these changes are completely new, while others represent the acceleration of pre-existing trends. Together, they might transform how the city functions.
While London is a resilient city – surviving plague, war and fire – its resilience is also a timely reminder that its continued success cannot be assumed. In living memory, London shrank, and some saw signs of terminal decline. We are confident that London will bounce back this time, but that doesn’t mean it will continue unchanged. Periods of upheaval and transition can be painful and last for many years.
Our findings confirm what might seem obvious: because of Londoners’ exposure to the fragility of city life – and because so many things we take for granted have been threatened – it is issues like safety, health, resilience and the environment that Londoners are most concerned about today.
Decisions taken by the city’s leaders will be pivotal in determining whether this is an inflection point for London – leading to stagnation – or merely a blip on an otherwise upward trajectory. This critical and timely report is intended as essential reading for London’s leaders, as well as a source of inspiration and ideas for all those in decision-making roles. Building on the earlier London at a Crossroads report, Greater London presents new evidence and thinking on what matters to Londoners, what we value, and where the city’s future should lie.
Creating this report has been a monumental project. Enormous thanks are due to the whole team at Centre for London for assembling such a huge amount of data and synthesising it into a coherent and impactful proposal. I am extremely grateful to all our funders for their support, without which the work simply could not have happened. If our work provokes thought, stimulates discussion and proves useful to those taking key decisions, then it will have had the intended effect. For the city to emerge from this dark period, and for the sake of Londoners, the decisions taken now must be the right ones.
Dr Nick Bowes
Chief Executive, Centre for London
Cities like London create extremes: of wealth and poverty, of opportunity, of health and sickness. The COVID-19 pandemic brought this into sharp focus, and has reshaped how Londoners relate to the city they call home. That’s why the second report from London Futures could not be timelier. The experiences of the city’s residents in this report show that the benefits of living in the capital are not shared equally and that London’s many strengths often mask its inequalities.
Over the last year we’ve seen that you are far more likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19 if you breathe polluted air, live in crowded housing, have a precarious and inflexible job, or experience financial insecurity. Londoners are more likely to be in those circumstances in the first place if they are Black, living in poverty, or exposed to other structural inequalities and discrimination. These health inequalities are not a result of COVID-19: they were here all along. But as this report confirms, London can do better. We’ve designed the system we live in, and we can redesign it. Inequality is not an inevitable part of a post-COVID London.
Currently, London’s recovery and its future are uncertain. What is certain, however, is that Londoners want their future to be fairer. For so much of the last year, we have focused on all the things we haven’t been able to do. Together – as individuals, organisations, businesses and policymakers – we now have a responsibility to shift the focus to what we can, and should, start changing. Our city has wonderful assets that could promote good health for all. This report explores how we can build back, not just better, but fairer – both for London and the UK.
Executive Director of Programmes, Impact on Urban Health