Tensions and trade-offs
Understanding where London is today helps us explore what futures might be possible. But future-gazing is difficult. Often aspects appear fixed that are not, or we fail to see constraints and challenges to come. Our foresight is flawed, at best.
As we have seen in our examination of London’s present and future, tensions abound, and Figure 30 shows many of the challenges ahead. There are no neat fixes available, nor easy equations to lean on to resolve these tensions. Choices will be needed to be made across competing priorities. We have already seen how the urgency of the response to COVID-19 risks slowing action on other pressing challenges, not least the climate emergency and preparations for Brexit.
Such trade-offs are a necessary feature of politics. They may, as in the case of climate action or inequality, be softened, or even reversed over time. But in the short-to-medium term hard trade-offs are a political reality. Devoting more city space to buses takes it away from cars. More focus on neighbourhoods means less on the city centre. Reforms to institutions absorb valuable political and law-making time but may bear rich fruit in the future. Not all areas are at odds, however, and there are huge potential complementarities across some aspects of city life. For instance, active modes of travel such as cycling can reduce car use and therefore also congestion, air pollution and the cost of transport (personal and public) – in addition to improving wellbeing. Few solutions have such wide benefits, but many address a number of the tensions and challenges set out here.
To help us explore these trade-offs, tensions and complementarities – and therefore London’s possible futures – we close our report with some illustrative scenarios. To be useful, scenarios need to provoke a debate yet also strike a balance between realism and challenge. 154 Here we present five long-term scenarios, each broadly imaginable within 30 years or so. Each follows years of accumulated change pushing hard in a particular direction: none is perfect, and each is likely to entail what some will see as negative as well as positive consequences.
Given the very limited powers currently wielded by London government and local councils, some assumptions about additional enabling powers granted by the UK parliament have been made across each scenario. We have not painted the detail here of those powers. We have focused instead on what priorities for Londoners these scenarios reflect, as well as key policies and changes. In doing so, we hope to trace out where some of the complementarities and trade-offs might arise.
Each scenario prioritises two largely complementary attributes or values of city life as set out earlier. For example, we have combined security and resilience with health, and created a scenario that plausibly explores what London might be possible with a strong emphasis on these issues. Our aim is to bring to life some of the choices and tensions we have laid out in the preceding sections – while illustrating how profoundly some of the choices ahead might impact London.
Scenario 1: 15-minute London
Spurred by the home-working revolution of 2020, with its widespread revival of local shops, and the climate emergency, London’s leaders back neighbourhoods and low-carbon living as the centrepiece of a green recovery. They commit to delivering net-zero greenhouse gas emissions a full 20 years ahead of national targets and plan accordingly. Bold targets are set for eliminating fossil fuels from London. The expected backlash fails to fully materialise as Londoners accept that the era of the combustion engine and the gas boiler is rapidly coming to an end. Energy efficiency measures are widely adopted too. Businesses and supply chains accelerate towards low-carbon alternatives. Air travel never recovers fully. Londoners give up their cars in droves, especially in inner London, as a London wide road user charging scheme bites. They instead switch to the rehabilitated public transport network, bikes, e-bikes and a new generation of small, electric vehicles. Central London office life never returns to pre-coronavirus levels, and instead repopulates with residents. Across London, local groups increasingly take charge of housing homeless people, primary education, social care, and some aspects of healthcare.
Scenario 2: Londependence
Centuries of centralisation in UK government are reversed when a new cross-party consensus delivers unprecedented new powers to London as part of a new constitutional settlement. A new federal district helps to delineate national and London government more clearly. New tax powers are given to the GLA, as well as new responsibilities for health, housing, social care and even welfare. Boroughs flourish too as powers and revenue cascade down. A new Citizens’ Assembly is established that advises and complements the formal London government bodies. Some government departments and functions exit the capital. Over time, new policies for London are trialled, tackling homelessness, housing affordability, inequality and competitiveness (including a fast-track London visa scheme for EU nationals). London takes full control on planning matters and fast-tracks new rules to allow development of new homes to London-specific standards.
Scenario 3: London MegaCapital
The “levelling up” agenda falls away and a new, muscular pro-London attitude emerges, driven by the need to raise tax revenues given the post-coronavirus fiscal strain. London reasserts its dominant position in the UK. Economic growth is pursued above other goals, with priority given to global connectivity. Air travel, despite carbon goals, is prioritised in the recovery. Business influence in running the capital’s affairs grows, and new investments to foster innovation have some success. London’s global business sectors build back strongly from the 2020 low point. “Brand London” is re-embraced as a core part of the post-EU “Global Britain” push for increased trade and tourism. London’s startup scene also rebounds and becomes world leading. Eventually Greater London’s boundaries expand, taking in much of the remaining M25 territory. But some devolution is reversed: national government takes direct control of some areas and pushes the pace on housing development and other significant growth projects. Crossrail 2 is given the go-ahead to relieve congestion and overcrowding.
Scenario 4: Levelled Up London
The deep impacts of COVID-19 on London’s most vulnerable citizens breed a new movement for a fairer capital. In 2023 London’s Mayor, the boroughs and national government agree a new plan to make London fairer. New investments to protect London’s most fragile people take shape. New laws create greater powers to requisition empty homes in order to house the most disadvantaged. Street homelessness is eliminated.
A London Minimum Wage is launched. Public transport is made free to all, and radical schemes to address age-old inequalities are piloted, with the most successful scaled up. Parents, minorities, and the lower-skilled benefit. But new restrictions are placed on immigration into London, and business leaders’ warnings of an exodus of commercial capital and talent go unheeded. Population growth reverses, and the economic output per capita grows only slowly. Nevertheless, Londoners become more equal in terms of income, wealth, rights and opportunities, and relative poverty drops abruptly, which is reflected in a new civic ethos across social groups.
Scenario 5: Safety First London
The “Great Pause” of 2020 and the subsequent recession leads to a new era of civic caution. Investment is switched towards public health, security and adapting to the warming climate. Epidemic control measures piloted during the first wave of COVID-19 develop into new and permanent features of city life. More is spent on ensuring a resilient economy and society. Security of food, medical supplies and biosecurity become paramount, alongside the control of citizens’ movements and the monitoring of their health using new technologies. New “what-if” planning trumps efficiencies across the private and public sector. Economic output drops overall, but citizens’ fears about new shocks are managed down successfully. London’s flood defences and a new fund for cooling the city during heat spikes are the most popular policies of the 2032 mayoral election. A new ‘moonshot’ target to eradicate childhood obesity catches the imagination and shapes education, food policy and street design. Work starts on Thames Barrier II.