The ‘Great Wen’
London’s sheer size, its seemingly unstoppable growth, and its magnetic attraction to people from inside and outside of the UK, has led to a long history of derogatory nicknames. Perhaps the most famous originated in the 1820s, when the Liberal MP William Cobbett described the capital as the ‘Great Wen’, a cyst that grew exponentially, draining the life from the rest of the nation. Towards the end of that century, the Liberal Chairman of the London County Council would wonder at the ‘awfulness’ of the ever-expanding city: ‘If it was a wen then what is it now? A tumour, an elephantiasis – sucking into its gorged system half the life and blood and the bone of the rural districts’. 108
London has been the most populous city in the UK since the late Middle Ages, and generally the most economically powerful. As far back as the early 1600s, King James I lamented the capital’s growth, gloomily observing that ‘soon, London will be all England’. 109 The city’s population truly exploded during the 1800s, growing at a rate of around 20 per cent per decade. In 1801, London passed one million residents and became the largest city in Western Europe since Rome; by 1840 it was the largest city in the history of the world, with over two million Londoners. By 1901, 6.5 million people lived in London. 110
The capital wasn’t alone in growing suddenly fat on the proceeds of the industrial revolution and the British Empire. By 1901, nearly 80 per cent of the UK’s population lived in cities. 111 Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham also prospered mightily. But the capital became ever more dominant. In 1801, Greater London made up around 12 per cent of the population of England and Wales. By the end of the 19th century, it accounted for over 20 per cent. 112 By 1939, London’s population was at 8.6 million, the largest it had ever been. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the UK, and particularly the North of England and Wales, was in decline, and many blamed the capital. London, for its part, had plenty of problems of its own: its rapid expansion had also seen slums, pollution, overcrowding and poverty become prevalent, and town planners began to refer to London as ‘a national menace’, or even ‘a Daemon’. 113 But, if this really was the case, what should be done about it?
Rebalancing the economy, part 1
Evacuation and conscription gutted London during World War Two, but its end saw a mass return to the capital, with 8.2 million Londoners by 1951. 114 However, while Londoners had been away, planners had begun to envisage a new future. A series of wartime plans and reports, from the Barlow Commission on ‘the Distribution of the Industrial Population’, to Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London and County of London plans, all saw London’s growth as a problem that could, and must, be remedied. Barlow focused on the decentralisation of industry and warned against its overconcentration in London and the South East. 115 Abercrombie envisaged the ‘decentralisation’ of Londoners themselves, to the New Towns, Garden Cities and suburbs, to tackle overcrowding and improve quality of life. 116
The postwar decades were therefore dominatedby what historian, Jerry White, calls the ‘London-asproblem paradigm’. 117 Successive governments placed restrictions on economic activity in prosperous London, by constraining construction of factories and, later, offices in the capital. The legislation that established the Greater London Council and the London boroughs even made it illegal to advertise industrial opportunities in London. 118 New office development in central London was effectively banned in 1964. 119
Government also intervened to incentivise, subsidise and sometimes construct factories itself in the depressed areas outside of the capital. This had some limited success, but that success proved short-lived, as de-industrialisation hit the UK. 120 Equally, as Figure 12 below shows, regional inequalities were reduced in the first decades of the postwar years primarily by a decline in London’s economic output, rather than by increased output elsewhere. Meanwhile, London’s decline was accompanied by the ‘relative decline’ of the UK economy as a whole, compared to its European competitors. When London began to boom again, the UK followed – but regional inequalities began to re open as well.
The reduction of spatial inequalities in the UK economy was ultimately very short lived, and the nation soon returned to a familiar pattern of London out performing its peers. As Figure 12 indicates, by the start of the 21st century, regional inequality in the UK was heading back to where it had been at the start of the 20th, as the national economy began to pick up once more. However, in between, the economies of both London and the UK as a whole had both experienced a period of relative decline.
Rebalancing the economy, part 2
From 1979, the Thatcher governments had begun to change tack, reducing spending on regional subsidies and narrowing the parts of the country that subsidies were provided to. De-industrialisation continued to hit much of the country hard, with London the first to be hit and (in parts) the first to recover. The Wider South East as a whole subsequently benefitted massively as the UK’s service sector boomed, and both the capital’s population and its economy began to recover from the end of the 1980s. The Labour government elected in 1997, did not interfere with this process, but adopted an ‘investment for all’ approach, which saw Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) invest in growth across the UK, including in London. The Greater London Authority and the London mayoralty were also established in the year 2000, following a referendum in 1998. RDAs have since been replaced by Local Enterprise Partnerships, with new region-specific initiatives such as the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, ‘Midlands Engine’, Combined Authority Mayors and a range of other limited devolutionary measures.
What effect, if any, have the various measures outlined in this chapter had? Ultimately, as Ron Martin et al. described in 2016, ‘Past efforts to achieve a more spatially balanced distribution of economic activity and economic growth have failed to have any substantial or lasting impact.’ 121 Postwar regional policy failed to address the widening gap between London, (now more inextricably connected with the Wider South East than ever before), and the rest of the UK. But it could also be said that, in many senses, the UK has returned to its ‘natural state’ in periods of economic growth. Whilst the economic context had changed, ‘the striking conclusion is that both episodes of globalisation have been associated with major changes in regional income differentials in Britain with big losers and big winners.’ 121
A return to the postwar approach of disincentivising growth in London and subsidising it elsewhere in the country has not since been seriously considered, largely because the old ‘command-and-control’ economy has gone. Companies and taxation are now increasingly internationally footloose and cannot be moved within a single country by act of policy. London competes for financial and business services with New York, Hong Kong and Frankfurt – not Stoke-on-Trent, Gateshead and Hull.
However, discussion of the need to address the UK’s regional imbalances has re-emerged and slowly increased in prominence over the last decade. In 2010, recently elected Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, critiqued the UK economy’s over-reliance on ‘just a few industries and a few regions – particularly London and the South East. This really matters. (…) We are determined that should change.’ 121 The Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine, the establishment of Combined Authority Mayors (or ‘Metro Mayors’), City Deals and other devolutionary and regionally-minded measures all followed. But what accounts for this change in tone?
Things fall apart
The 2008 financial crash provided the first of a series of shocks to what was an already difficult relationship. The crisis appeared to arrive on UK shores through London, where the majority of the main financial services companies were headquartered, and as historian, Peter Mandler, has noted, ‘Bankers and politicians were blamed for that crash, but the rest of the country paid the price’. 124 London, as the national home of both groups, was guilty by association. Yet London’s ‘guilty’ did not appear to suffer the consequences: it has been argued that central government policy effectively ‘bailed out’ the financial services through monetary policy, and those who caused the crash therefore appeared to escape relatively unharmed. 125 In 2017, Ipsos MORI found politicians in general, government ministers, journalists and bankers to be amongst the least trusted professions in the country. Curiously, all of these professions were notably more trusted by Londoners than they were in any other region of the UK. 126
Following the crash, substantial cuts were made to public services and wages stagnated. London didn’t escape; in fact urban areas across the country saw the sharpest cuts. However, academics have explicitly linked the effects of the financial crash to the new prominence of political rhetoric and policies around ‘rebalancing the economy’. 127 In September 2014, amidst the political rise of the populist, anti-immigration UK Independence Party, The Guardian reported that, outside of the capital:
The symbol of most ills is seen to be London (…) Westminster represents the infection at its most extreme, but the animosity transcends politics. It focuses on London as a city state, with a different way of life, a different culture. 128
The same month also saw Scotland vote to remain part of the United Kingdom by a closer margin than widely anticipated, following a divisive campaign which saw London branded the ‘dark star’ of the UK economy by the pro-independence SNP.
In 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. London was the only English ‘region’ (but not the only part of the UK, nor by any means the only English city) to vote to remain; by 59.9 per cent to 40.1. London’s apparent difference from the rest of the country in this area subsequently became a widespread topic for discussion amongst politicians and the national media, even though some areas of east and south London recorded some of the highest votes for Leave. An apparently tongue-in-cheek petition calling for the Mayor of London to declare the capital independent from the rest of the UK and apply to join the EU subsequently garnered over 180,000 signatures. 129
At the end of the year, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown cited the growing economic divide between the north and south of the country as a primary driver behind the Brexit vote, and called for the UK’s centralised constitution to be re thought, in order to create ‘a more federal union’. While the extent of regional inequality in the UK is intensely debated, addressing this has become an increasingly prominent issue in recent years.
There is also a wider international context to London’s deteriorating relations with the rest of the UK. Around the globe, ‘world cities’ like London are facing increasing resentment from their nation states, accused of getting more than their ‘fair share’ of investment, causing domestic ‘brain drain’, and commanding disproportionate influence over national government policy. 130 The urbanist, Richard Florida, has claimed that increasing divides between global ‘superstar’ cities and their nations ‘are exactly what resulted in the voting swings towards Brexit and Trump’. 131 London is not alone in finding itself in an increasingly difficult position.
Rebalancing the economy, part 3?
Central government has also intervened to ‘decentralise’ in recent years, relocating parts of the BBC to Salford’s ‘Media City’, completed in 2012, or the Office for National Statistics to Newport in 2006, for example. 132 The 2017 Conservative Party Manifesto pledged to move Channel 4 and some parts of the Civil Service out of the capital, in an attempt to share London’s prosperity around the country. The Conservative Party also committed to targeting more arts spending outside of the capital and proposed an Industrial Strategy to ensure that ‘wealth and opportunity are spread across every community in the United Kingdom, not just the most prosperous places in London and the South East.’ 133
The Labour Party, for its part, asserted that ‘We have relied too heavily on the financial sector, centred on London and the South East’, and pledged that, ‘We will put in place tight rules to ensure that investment is fairly shared around every region and nation of the UK.’ 134 Of course, government focuses primarily on the regional allocation of public sector employment and investment. But the private sector is responsible for over 80 per cent of jobs in the UK. London’s real success is in generating new private sector companies and, thus, higher productivity. Very little government policy considers the real challenge: how to make the economy in places with less growth and lower value jobs more successful in generating start ups and entrepreneurship.
Relatively, few concrete policy measures to address regional inequalities in the UK have been implemented. Leeds won its bid for Channel 4’s national headquarters in October 2018, with 200 staff set to move by the end of 2019, 135 and more Arts Council funding has been allocated outside London. 136 The current government’s Industrial Strategy recognises that ‘different policies will be needed for different places’, and commits to creating Local Industrial Strategies to help boost regional growth across the country. 137
None of these policies amount to anything like a full return to the anti-city and anti-London national policies of the postwar years. But recent debates on transport investment in the UK have led to increasingly polarised arguments over regional ‘fairness’, with accusations that the capital is over-dominant. It is also increasingly said that national politicians are ignorant and indifferent to the world outside of Westminster, a feeling that has also influenced the debate on the relative merits of towns and cities in the UK.
Brexit currently dominates national discourse, but its impact may exacerbate inter-regional tensions. HM Treasury’s own forecasts predict that leaving the European Union will increase economic disparities between regions. 138 It is likely that, by the time the government returns to the question of London’s position within the UK, it will be within the context of an even more divided country. London’s place within the United Kingdom therefore remains very much a live issue.