The political heart of the UK does not lift the spirits just now. That is not only because national affairs are in what Andrew Adonis, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, described yesterday afternoon as a “perilous” state, but also because the physical environment around Parliament Square is so dispiriting.
On Westminster Bridge as darkness gathered, decaying tributes to victims of the March terror attack included one from the Football Lads Alliance, the latest street nationalist re-brand; the cycle lane was almost devoid of cyclists, although a motorised rickshaw made crafty use of it; the maze of anti-terror barriers outside the House of Commons, unrelieved by decoration or disguise, conveyed a grim defensiveness; as I queued for security checks, the Big Ben clock face peered down meekly through a lattice of scaffolding, part of the costly exercise in stopping the mother of parliaments falling apart; meanwhile, the news wires hummed with tales of gropers and worse in corridors of misused power.
A tonic was required. It was delivered in Dining Room A. The All Party Parliamentary Group for London might not sound like a vehicle for national renewal in the face of so much drift and unease, but it represents a political consensus from which purposeful action might flow – and not solely to benefit the capital. Lord Adonis, fresh from dropping in on Michael Barnier, was the speaker at its autumn reception. His 15-minute address served as both a pick-me-up and a reminder that disaster may be brewing unless we get a grip.
He described London as the effective “capital of Europe”, by his calculation the tenth since the heyday of Athens: “It is the business capital, it is the financial services capital, it is the cultural capital.” His dire warning was that each preceding one had fallen swiftly and suddenly. “There is nothing inevitable, let alone God-given, in being a strong, successful European city. You have to earn it and you have to have all the economic and social and other infrastructure in place for it.” Complacency could have heavy costs: “There are plenty of other people out there who are absolutely desperate to eat our lunch.” He then made three headline points.
One: Less Europe will mean less London.
He saw as obviously bad: “Anything that gives European citizens less need to live here, to trade here, to feel a part of what’s going on here. My view on Brexit is very clear. We should stop it. We should find a way.” Another referendum might do the job, he thought, though all Theresa May need do is withdraw the notice to leave she gave under Article 50 and “this whole nightmare will be over”. He despaired at the idea that “putting in jeopardy our access to 27 neighbouring markets, including our largest one,” could be good for the nation, telling Conservatives present that getting access to the single market had been “the great triumph” of Margaret Thatcher. He likened Brexit to the Poll Tax. There was nothing you could do to mitigate a policy so fundamentally flawed. The only right thing to do was to “scrap it”.
Two: Less London does not mean more Liverpool or more Leeds.
“There’s a very dangerous strand in our national thinking at the moment, that says that starving London means there will be more to invest in the Midlands and the North and that we should see this as a zero sum game,” Adonis said. “Those other places badly need investment. But when you have a strong and successful part of the economy, the best thing you can do is play to its strengths and see that the benefits are widely shared and dispersed.” London, of course, generates jobs in and exports taxes to other parts of the country, though Adonis does not think London should not do more to help itself.
“London businesses paid for a third of Crossrail. What London needs to do now is pay for half of Crossrail 2”. He thought this perfectly do-able. A supplementary business rate had been introduced by Mayor Livingstone to help fund Crossrail and Mayor Johnson had stuck with it. This could be done again. And what about the massive rises in property values that new rail infrastructure brings about? “People who make these huge windfall gains should make a contribution – not a huge contribution, but a reasonable one. If you do that, London can meet half the cost of Crossrail 2.”
Meanwhile, Adonis’s mission is to get the government to help other UK cities too, and urges them to work with him to that end. He wants Andy Street, the Tory West Midlands metro mayor, to rename Birmingham International transport hub “UK Central” because: “It will be at the very centre of the entire new 21st century transport system. It’s going to be an absolutely phenomenal interchange.” He wants a Midlands hub and a Northern Crossrail too, all tying in with HS2. Crossrail 2 needs to be delivered at the same time – he’s looking at 2032 – because without it, Euston will overflow.
Three: We need revolution in homebuilding, especially in social homebuilding
Adonis said: “If we get more homes, that means more London, more Europe, more Liverpool and more Leeds. That’s because we’ll have a more successful London, a more integrated London, which will make the economy more successful, which will enable us to directly support other parts of the country and make London a still more attractive destination for Europeans and others from abroad. That is the bit that we have not cracked.
The only time when we, as a country, have built 200,000 homes a year was when local authorities built half of them. When it comes to social housing, or other types that need subsidy of one kind or another, either the state builds them or they don’t get built. You might get a bit from Section 106, but it’s always going to be the small change.
What you’ve got to have are people whose primary purpose is to build social and other affordable housing. And that needs to be local authorities. We need to learn from the past. We don’t want the monotenure ghettoes that emerged and were a problem in parts of London and we do need public authorities to take the lead in this.”
So that was the Adonis view on how to prevent London’s giving way to an eleventh unofficial capital of Europe in ten years’ time. You might think it too optimistic. You might fear that Brexit can’t be halted without a terrible backlash; that neither the cash nor the political will exist to fund all those rail links; that the Adonis recipe for more housebuilding of the type most required would be messier in practice than it sounds. But here was a vision for a nation and its capital moving forward together to which people and politicians of different shades of opinion up and down the land just might subscribe. We certainly need one, and we need it now.