Ros Morgan: End of road for rogue London pedicabs can’t come too soon

Pedicabs are a menace to London’s streets. They put lives at risk, disturb people with incessant music, and their operators often charge excessive amounts for short journeys. It was therefore a relief to hear His Majesty King Charles III say at the recent state opening of Parliament that the “scourge of unlicensed pedicabs” would be dealt with through legislation. In even better news, the Pedicabs (London) Bill has begun its journey towards becoming law.

This is not before time. Current laws governing pedicabs date back to the 1800s and the Heart of London Business Alliance, which represents over 600 businesses and property owners in Piccadilly, St James’s, Haymarket, St Martin’s and Leicester Square, has been calling for their regulation for the best part of a decade.

The vehicles have, for years, been excused as harmless fun for but West End businesses see them as a major issue and a real nuisance. They discourage people from visiting the area, and take advantage of some who do. There are far too many well-documented cases of pedicab drivers charging passengers ludicrous sums.

Not only are they fleecing tourists, they are also making the West End’s streets less safe. We have no idea if the drivers or their vehicles are fit to carry people. Most pedicabs ignore the Highway Code and block pavements. Westminster City Council’s slogan of this time last year said it best: “Be careful what you get into.”

Local MP Nickie Aiken has been a vocal champion for the cause, and her hard work culminated in the King’s Speech breakthrough. The Bill should be enacted before the next general election. However, we must not rest on our laurels, as we have been burned before.

A similar announcement was made in the final Queen’s Speech last May, but the measure was kicked into the long grass before making any progress. Tighter controls on these unruly vehicles cannot come soon enough.

This is not about banning pedicabs altogether. What we have long called for is a level playing field with other types of private hire vehicles to ensure the highest standards for them all. We look forward to working with Transport for London and the Department for Transport to ensure that the legislation does just that.

Some pedicab operators have taken action in recent years and run their fleets responsibly, but time ought to be up on those linked to unscrupulous and unsafe behaviour, unwanted touting and excessive fares.

Ros Morgan is chief executive of the Heart of London Business Alliance (HOLBA). Follow HOLBA on X/Twitter. Photograph: Westminster Council. If you value On London and its coverage of the capital, become a supporter or a paying subscriber to Dave Hill’s personal Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. In return, you’ll get a big, weekly London newsletter and offers of free tickets to top London events.

Categories: Comment

Richard Lander: RIP Russell Norman, the man who brought us sharing plates

The London restaurant trade is reeling from the sudden and shocking death of Russell Norman, the man who brought small dishes designed to be shared to London 14 years ago.

With the Venetian-flavoured Polpo and latterly with Brutto, Norman established himself, in the words of his friend, food critic Richard Vines, as “one of the most creative and influential UK restaurateurs London has known. He could see the big picture and the tiniest detail at the same time”.

Other tributes from those who knew him well were similarly eloquent about his charm and kindness. The attention to detail noted by Vines was laid out by Norman in a 32-point sequence of service outlining a customer’s journey at Polpo from the moment they enter (“they are greeted by the manager”) to when they leave (“smile and say goodbye”). Shockingly, he was just 57 when a cardiac arrest ended his life.

As stylish as his restaurants, Norman served beautifully-crafted food in surroundings that eschewed any hint of formality but instead placed taste, flavour and fun front and centre of the dining experience. The food (and the Negroni cocktails which he also made hugely popular in this country) was what you were there for after queuing to get in – no reservations being another of his innovations.

It’s a hallmark of so much Italian food that the dishes can be as simple as they are delicious. Among the starters at Brutto are chicken liver toasts and (my favourite) anchovies with cold butter and sourdough – open a tin, get some butter from the fridge and slice some bread. Yes, you can do this at home, but Norman added the ambience in beautifully curated locations.

Of course, doing something new in London restaurants does not guarantee success or critical acclaim. There was a meatball-focused restaurant some years ago that rolled off into the night at some speed while Naked Soho (“London’s first sex-themed restaurant”) quickly went the way of all flesh (sorry about that) without troubling the critics.

So, why have sharing and small plates hit the spot so well? What visceral needs do they tap inside us that make them so popular? A few answers to that, I think.

Firstly, they (literally) bring diners closer together, whether they be a couple on a nerve-racking first date or participants in a somewhat stiffer business encounter – non-cringe icebreaker, if you like. You start by agreeing on the dishes you are going to share (instead of reeling off your individual orders to a waiter). And when the dishes arrive, you literally pick over them together – leaning in, as they say these days. A pas de deux may ensue as people avoid taking the last piece of ham or mopping up the last puddle of labneh, but this is likely to end in a friendly agreement to share the spoils.

Secondly, it ensures you get an amazing variety of flavours throughout your meal. The sharing fixed menu I enjoyed recently at Bubala, the Middle Eastern vegetarian restaurant in Soho, brought everything from halloumi and black seed honey to savoy cabbage, tofu, shiitake and chive salsa via confit potato latkes with chilli to the table. Over at Sessions Arts Club, one of the capital’s hottest venues, we got to share beetroot, goat’s curd and black olive, mackerel, pumpkin and mandarin and eel, and potato and crème fraiche. Something for everybody.

Compare that with ordering one single starter or main course. It may be the best you have tasted but you will be going home talking of one dish, not four or five. Which brings me on to the third and final reason why sharing plates trigger so much joy – Fomo, or more precisely, a lack thereof.

We’ve all ordered a starter or main course we almost instantly regretted choosing. Maybe we chose it because we secretly wanted what our companion ordered but didn’t want to copy them and display a lack of originality – instantly the wrong kind of note to start a meal off on. Yes, your colleague or friend might offer a tiny corner of what they are enjoying (possibly under sufferance), but that only serves to make Fomo worse, not better, as they bang on about how wonderful their choice is.

Of course, since sharing plates have spread far and wide, some restaurants with an eye on the bottom line rather than culinary excellence have taken things too far. The jokes write themselves (“we recommend at least nine dishes per person and the chef will send them out in whatever order he feels like”).

But as the old saying goes, they only make fun of your ideas because they’re jealous. Much better to avoid the jibes and sneers, crack open a tin of anchovies with some bread and butter and toast Russell Norman’s life with a negroni.

This is an article was originally published by CityWire. X/Twitter: Richard LanderIf you value On London’s journalism, become a supporter or a paying subscriber to publisher and editor Dave Hill’s personal Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. In return, you’ll get a fab London newsletter and offers of free tickets to top events.

Categories: Culture

London Explained: A documentary podcast about the regeneration of Earl’s Court

I first wrote about plans for a major regeneration of the heart of Earl’s Court way back in 2009, kept at it throughout my years as the Guardian’s London commentator and haven’t stopped since. But my latest coverage of the issue is a bit different – a 30-minute podcast for the London Society about a whole new renewal project for the area, made in partnership with top BBC Radio producer Andrew McGibbon.

Unlike most podcasts about planning and spatial development – indeed, unlike most podcasts in general – it is not composed of me having a chat with another person or two, but a scripted documentary featuring several interviews, “found” sounds from the neighbourhood and archive material going back more than half a century.

The finished result sounds exactly like a proper BBC radio feature – the sort of thing Andrew and I worked on together last summer for Radio 4 and won awards for. It is fantastic to have secured such a commission from the London Society, which has sustained a deep knowledge of and concern for the capital’s built environment for over 100 years.

The Earl’s Court podcast is the first of a series for the London Society called London Explained, which will seek to illuminate the often complex and sometimes hotly-contested ways in which major changes take place in the capital.

As well as Rob Heasman, chief executive of the Earls Court Development Company (ECDC), it features the views of an array of local people who have had input into the plans, a manager from the famous Troubadour Club, and key local politicians from the two boroughs – Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea – the development site straddles.

You will also hear excerpts from Patrick Hamilton’s famous pre-war novel Hangover Square, which was set in Earl’s Court, and from a range of shows held down the decades at the world-renowned Earls Court exhibition centre, ranging from the Ideal home Exhibition to Pink Floyd in concert.

I’ve never made any secret of my dislike for the previous and unsuccessful Earl’s Court project, which, to my mind, typified many of the worst ways of going about regeneration: a top-down, high-handed attitude with financial and ideological considerations dominant and local community concerns of various kinds taking a distant second place. It’s main achievement was flattening the exhibition centre and putting nothing in its place.

In the podcast, the ECDC receives a lot of praise for going about things differently, as well as some polite reminders that there’s still a long way to go before everyone – the boroughs, local businesses and residents, both young and old – can feel sure they will be happy with the end result. My hope is that everyone who listens to it feels informed, entertained and enlightened about the many factors that shape London’s big regeneration equations.

You can listen to the first episode of London Explained on Spotify, on Apple and a whole load of other podcast platforms. I hope you enjoy it.

X/Twitter: On London and Dave Hill. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to Dave’s Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. Image from the Earls Court Development Company.

Categories: Analysis

London: The Levelling Down Monitor

In his Introduction to the Conservative Party’s 2019 general election manifesto Boris Johnson said his government had already mapped out a programme to “level up, spreading opportunity across the whole United Kingdom”. The document said this meant “not just investing in our great towns and cities, as well as our rural and coastal areas, but giving them far more control of how that investment is made”. It continued: “In the 21st century, we need to get away from the idea that ‘Whitehall knows best’ and that all growth must inevitably start in London.”

Many would agree with those manifesto objectives, including plenty in London who recognise that it is unhealthy for the UK economy to be so heavily dependent on that of its capital city – London generates nearly a quarter of the nation’s economic output and around one third of its taxes – while other big cities lag far behind, and who would like to see far greater devolution to regional and local government across the nation.

And yet much of what the Johnson government has done in the name of “levelling up” seems to have nakedly electoral goals, concerned less with enabling cities and regions outside of London to enjoy greater autonomy and control over their own affairs than with making a public performance of depriving London of resources and pulling rank over the London Mayor to impose its own priorities on the capital, most notably in the key areas of transport and strategic planning.

This is damaging not only to London but also, precisely because the rest of the UK is so reliant on its capital city, to everywhere else – you will not “level up” the country by levelling London down. At the same time, serious progress towards the goal of closing the economic productivity gap between London and most of the rest of the country – one pursued with little success by successive national governments since the war – has yet to be made.

Just as the populist untruth that London and Londoners, many of whom struggle daily with poverty, prosper at the expense of fellow Britons goes largely unchallenged, the government’s policy discrimination against London and its top-down interventions in City Hall affairs go largely unreported.

On London is an exception to that failing and this page is dedicated to gathering all examples of anti-London policy into one place. As well as being compiled here in the Levelling Down Monitor, new examples will be reported separately on the website. Input to the project comes from a wide range of London-focused individuals and organisations, to whom gratitude is extended. The most recent examples of levelling down London appear at the top of the list.

Last updated, 21 August 2023.


August 2023 – Institute for Fiscal Studies report on public spending allocations reveals that parts of London have done all right in recent years, but areas outside it – and in Tory-voting non-urban areas in general – have done better. On London coverage by Richard Brown.

July 2023 – Michael Gove comes to King’s Cross to make a big speech about housing in which he describes London as “a national asset beyond price”. This sudden recognition was in some ways welcome. However, it was largely motivated by a desire to attack London’s Labour Mayor, threaten to (yet again) override his devolved powers, and to send a message to the capital’s Tory voters that he won’t let their suburban quiet be disturbed by building work. And his big “Docklands 2.0” idea was very old news.

December 2022 – The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill goes out for public consultation. Much of it is concerned with reforming the planning system and it includes the proposition that “this document will empower local leaders and give them more tools to level up their communities, build the beautiful homes that will give young people a secure path to home ownership, and boost pride in place”. It reiterates that “levelling up is the central objective of this government”.

December 2022 – Labour publishes proposals for renewing Britain’s democracy, which include a number of ideas for devolving powers to regions and local authorities. It mentions London nearly 100 times but largely recycles arguments that the capital has for too long received unfair favourable treatment.

November 2022 – The government’s anticipated Arts Council England funding cuts are announced. More than 60 small organisations in London were given grants for the  first time, but some larger ones must deal with cuts and English National Opera was among the institutions deprived of grants entirely although, like some others, it was offered money to move out of the capital.

November 2022 – New Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s first budget, intended to limit the damage caused by the brief premiership of Truss, protects previous “levelling up” spending, though by not increasing it in line with inflation effectively cuts it.

October 2022 – Liz Truss resigns as Prime Minister after just 44 days in office and is succeeded by Rishi Sunak, who reappoints Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Levelling up.

September 2022 – Government figures show that by the end of March 2022 only £3 million of the £65 million awarded to London projects in the first round of Levelling Up Fund allocations the previous October had actually been distributed.

August 2022 – Tory leadership contest favourite Liz Truss tells a party membership hustings in Wembley that “We are not going to succeed as a nation without a successful London…and in order to level up the United Kingdom we need a successful London”.

August 2022 – It emerges that while campaigning to be Boris Johnson’s successor as Prime Minister, former Chancellor Rishi Sunak told Conservative Party members in Tunbridge Wells that he had “managed to start changing the funding formulas” in government so that “areas like this” rather than “deprived urban areas” are “getting the funding they deserve”. The ensuing furore proceeds on the basis that “deprived urban areas” is shorthand for the north of England.

August 2022 – Campaigning to be Boris Johnson’s successor as Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss hurriedly backtracks on a pledge to link public sector pay to local living costs, in order to save money, a move which would result in civil servants (and possibly others) outside of London earning less money than before – the very opposite of “levelling up”.

July 2022 – Transport secretary Grant Shapps provides Transport for London with what he calls “our final offer” on funding, saying it “supports £3.6 billion worth of [capital] projects” yet is “fair” to UK taxpayers. He later described TfL as repeatedly “coming out with the begging bowl“. Prior to the pandemic London’s economy, which depends heavily on its public transport networks, was providing up to £40 billion a year in taxes spent elsewhere in the country.

July 2022 – The prospectus for the second round of Levelling Up fund bids is published. Transport for London and the GLA together seek £29.5 million from the £2.1 billion to pay for improvements to Colindale and Leyton stations.

July 2022 – Boris Johnson resigns as Prime Minister following a series of scandals.

June 2022 – Government “levelling up” adviser Andy Haldane confirms during an event for Centre For London that government “re-tilting” against London is underway, though he also argues that “levelling up” is not an “anti-London agenda”.

June 2022 – Arts Council chief Paul Bristow tells London Assembly members that the capital’s culture sector will face government-decreed grant cuts in the autumn.

June 2022 – Senior London Tory MP Bob Neill says in the House of Commons that “levelling up” policies in other parts of the country should not be pursued “at the expense of London” and that doing so would “damage everybody in the long run”.

May 2022 – Home Secretary Priti Patel reportedly tells outgoing chief inspector of constabulary Tom Winsor that the review of the Met he is leading should consider cutting the powers of the London Mayor over the service.

May 2022 – An outstandingly ignorant Spectator comment piece proclaims that London doesn’t need a Mayor.

May 2022 – The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill is introduced into Parliament, with the government claiming it will “put the foundations in place” for “ensuring all part of the country share equally in our nation’s success”. Exploring the detail, Centre for London director Nick Bowes raises concerns that provisions of the future law could “chip away at the Mayor’s powers on the London Plan and give the government “more sway”, eroding the powers of London government still further.

May 2022 – In a report about Covid’s impacts on the capital and government measures to address them, the Legatum Institute think tank says London continues to have the highest poverty rate in the country with one million Londoners coping with what it calls “deep poverty”, defined as more than 50% below the poverty line.

March 2022 – Home Secretary Priti Patel reportedly orders formal “probe” into Sadiq Khan’s handling of the departure of Cressida dick as Met commissioner.

March 2022 – An opinion poll finds that most Londoners are unmoved by the “levelling up” agenda.

March 2022 – The Arts Council, obeying instructions from culture secretary Nadine Dorries, confirms that £75 million will be cut from the capital’s arts funding over the next three years.

February 2022 – Michael Gove’s compendious levelling up white paper is finally published. Writing for On London, Richard Brown describes it as a mixture of the laudable, the aspirational and the spiteful and notes that the government’s intention to divert funding for housing away from London is not very helpful.

January 2022 –  The Times reports that a survey conducted for think tank More In Common has found that “a majority of voters think London and the south have to become less wealthy and prosperous in order to achieve Boris Johnson’s flagship goal of levelling up Britain”.

January 2022 – Grant Shapps announces a further extension of the “funding settlement” for TfL imposed in June 2021  to 4 February 2022 (it had previously been extended to 17 December) while he thinks about proposals from Sadiq Khan for raising additional incomes of between £500 million and £1 billion. In a statement Shapps says: “The government is committed to supporting London and the transport network on which it depends, whilst balancing that with supporting the national transport network as a whole.” Don’t worry voters elsewhere, London won’t be given more than you think it deserves.

December 2021 – Responding to Sunday Times coverage of a letter to Rishi Sunak from London business leaders imploring him to fund Transport for London properly, a spokesperson for the Treasury says “any support” for TfL, whose latest short-term funding support arrangement was to expire on 11 December, would be provided “in a way that is fair to taxpayers across the country”. Government figures show that up to £40 billion of taxes raised in London are spent in other parts of the country every year.

November 2021 – Secretary of State for Levelling Up Michael Gove tells MPs that he intends to discuss with Homes England “how we can invest in proper urban regeneration projects outside London and the south east” and that it is “very much something that is in my mind” to redistribute funding to help local authorities in the North of England.

November 2021 – London receives only £1.9 million of the £203.3 million awarded by the government from its UK Community Renewal Fund, representing a 30 per cent success rate for London-based schemes bidding for the money compared with 36.8 per cent rate for England as a whole and a 42 per cent rate for bids from Wales.

October 2021 – In his budget speech on 27 of the month, Chancellor Sunak announces funding for a string of towns, cities and regions but mentions London only twice (three times if you count a passing reference to the British Museum). One mention praises the city for being named the “best place in the world for green finance” but the other is to “London-style transport settlements” for other city regions, the effect being to reinforce the populist untruth that London has been spoiled at the expense of the rest of the country. The budget and spending review “red book” detail contains further use of the “London-style” formula along with a repeated emphasis on what proportion of national spending on particular things was being deployed “outside London”, adding to the impression of the UK’s capital quite properly being cut down to size. There is a surreal sense of a separate quasi state of Outside London effectively being formed. London also receives the smallest amount of money from the first round of allocations from the Levelling Up Fund in the whole Britain – £65 million for six projects out of £1.7 billion, equating to four per cent. The only bit of real cheer for London’s economy is a business rates discount for the struggling hospitality sector.

October 2021 – In advance of the budget and spending review, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announces £6.9 billion of transport funding for English cities. He laters admits that only a fraction of it hadn’t been announced before, but even so London is pointedly excluded.

October 2021 – At the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Boris Johnson’s speech contains crowd-pleasing jibes about “north London dinner parties” and “lefty Islington lawyers” amid signals that his priority is maintaining his new-found support in the North of England. London Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Richard Burge complained that Johnson’s presents London “almost as a villain” in his “levelling up” narrative. Prior to the conference, the former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry had written an article denouncing “southern privilege”. London Tory MPS at the conference were unhappy with Berry’s remarks, and AM Andrew Boff told a fringe event that problems his party is having with road schemes in the capital stem from Johnson’s transport adviser Andrew Gilligan.

July 2021 – PM’s transport adviser Andrew Gilligan blocks funding to London councils which, in his view have “prematurely” ended active travel schemes he wants kept going, having pressured the Mayor’s cycling and walking commissioner and Transport for London to take a more aggressive approach to “backsliding councils“.

July 2021 – Bids by seven groups of London colleges and businesses for government “skills accelerator” schemes are all unsuccessful. Eighteen bids from other parts of England receive all the money. London weighting for Higher Education is officially removed.

June 2021 – TfL emergency funding extended until 11 December with Grant Shapps stating that the arrangement is “fair to the national taxpayer” and that “the government will continue to review passenger demand” in the capital. The package requires more savings and sources of income, a review of TfL’s pension scheme and a programme for additional Tube automation. Shapps claims the deal combines helping the capital with “continuing to spend money on vital infrastructure projects to level up the national transport network outside of London”. A campaign led by London TravelWatch is later launched to prevent further bus service cuts.

March 2021 – Government publishes prospectus for its £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund, announced in the November 2020 spending review. Analysis by Financial Times reveals clear bias towards Tory areas, some of them affluent, with only two London local authorities, Newham and Barking & Dagenham, eligible for a scheme that “could have been designed to exclude the capital,” as Richard Brown put it.

January 2021 – Education secretary Gavin Williamson decides to remove the “London weighting” element from the government’s Higher Education teaching grant, designed to recognise higher costs in the capital, saying “the levelling-up agenda is key to this government, and we think it is inconsistent with this to invest additional money in London providers.” A plea by Sadiq Khan to reconsider had no effect.

January 2021 – Government launches £3.6 billion Towns Fund, describing it as “part of the government’s plans to level up our regions. Robert Jenrick says it is designed to help “rebalance the national economy and level up our regions through the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine and Oxford-Cambridge Arc. London town centres are excluded.

January 2021 – TfL submits its suggestions for becoming financially sustainable by 2023, as ordered to by Shapps. These include introducing a Greater London Boundary charge to be paid by non-London motorists entering the capital and retaining the share of Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) currently paid by Londoners but almost entirely spent elsewhere in the country. By the end of the month, Shapps appeared to publicly dismissed the idea for devolving VED and in February he publicly rubbished the boundary charge suggestion, which he would be able to block.

November 2020 – National Infrastructure Strategy is published, saying (page 15) “the government is investing in national transport and pivoting investment away from London, ensuring every region has great connectivity”.

October/November 2020 – A second short-term funding deal for TfL is provided, this time for £1 billion (including £95 million of further borrowing). Shapps instructs the Mayor to impose above inflation fare increases from January and to maintain the new, increased congestion charge levels and operating hours, along with the changes to concessionary fares for over-60s and under 18s, adding that if the Mayor and TfL wish to re-introduce the latter “they will meet these costs themselves”. He also orders TfL to “co-operate” with a “government-led review of driverless trains” and says a new “government-led working-level oversight group will be created”. TfL is further told to “produce a single, comprehensive management plan” for achieving “financial sustainability by 2023”) by January 2021.

September 2020 – City Hall releases documents showing that various attempts to secure government funding to repair Hammersmith Bridge had been rebuffed. Grant Shapps had previously claimed that “a failure of leadership” in London was to blame for the bridge’s poor condition.

September 2020 – Government officials argue that VAT refunds on purchases made in the UK by overseas visitors should be scrapped, because the scheme “does not benefit the whole of the UK equally” and is “largely centred on London“.

May 2020 – After Covid safety measures shatter TfL’s finances due to collapse of income from fares, government emergency funding of £1.6 billion is provided (including £505 million of additional borrowing), with a string of conditions attached, including the “temporary” suspension of free peak time travel for over-60s and all free travel for under-18s, instructions to increase the level and operating hours of the congestion charge and the implementation of “active travel” schemes and “detailed monitoring” of “operational performance” under government supervision. Two, “special representatives” of government are to attend all TfL board meetings with powers to “request additional information” and report to transport Secretary Grant Shapps. One  of them is the Prime Minister’s special adviser on transport, his erstwhile media support Andrew Gilligan.

March 2020 – Communities secretary Robert Jenrick writes to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, criticising his “intend to publish” draft London Plan, the master blueprint for the capital’s spatial development, and directing him to make changes to key policies.

December 2019Conservative Party general election manifesto commits to “devolving power to people and places across the UK” with “full devolution across England…so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny”. It adds: “We must get away from the idea that “all growth must inevitably start in London.” (The Labour manifesto also mentions “levelling up” and says a “national transformation fund unit” will be located in the north of England).

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Categories: Analysis

Dave Hill: New government migration curbs can only do London harm

Usually, the public responses of London business groups to large government announcements are diplomatically hedged – combinations of gratitude for small mercies and polite expressions of ongoing disappointment. By contrast, the statement released by BusinessLDN following brand new Home Secretary James Cleverly’s revealing the Conservatives’ latest plans for reducing net migration was rather stark.

‘At a time when businesses in London and across the country are struggling with acute skills shortages, raising the salary threshold at which workers can be recruited from abroad would make it much harder for firms to access the talent they need to drive growth,” said policy delivery director Mark Hilton. The government should put the economics before the politics.”

London Higher, which represents the capital’s universities, has a similar predisposition to nuance and critical friendship. But it too took a dim view of Cleverly‘s prescriptions. Chief executive Diana Beech did not veil her displeasure with the threat to the post-study work visa – or “graduate immigration route” – which enables overseas students to stay on in the UK after securing a degree or better.

“What is needed for London and the UK to thrive is more promotion of the post-study work visa, not less,” she said. “Any moves to restrict or abolish [it] will be the final nail in the coffin for the illusion of ‘Global Britain’, with the UK already being seen as unwelcoming to international students following a swathe of recent regressive policy changes.”

Biff. Bash. Ka-pow. The dismay could hardly have been less varnished. OK, you might suspect that the expected coming demise of the Tories, probably by this time next year, has lessened inhibitions. But that doesn’t mean the cries of anguish weren’t from the heart.

And why wouldn’t they be? Important sectors of the capital are struggling to recruit the quantity and quality of staff they need. Inadequate training of Londoners contributes to this situation – plenty are seeking work, but don’t fit vacancies’ requirements – but that doesn’t change the fact that London employers in construction, hospitality and others have jobs on offer they need qualified people to do this very day.

London, you might have heard, is the place the whole country depends on for growth, demand and taxes. In spite of being hammered hard by the pandemic, it has been leading the nation out of it. Now, Rishi Sunak’s unpopular administration has chosen to place appeasing the disquiet of Brexit-minded Britons above the needs of the British capital and, by extension, of Britain as a whole.

Such sentiments, it should not be forgotten, are not absent from London itself. The 40 per cent of Londoners who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum were a heavily outnumbered minority, but a large one nonetheless. And while “Brexit identities”, like Brexit belief, have declined far and wide, that mindset is not extinct in Remain City.

Yet the recent, in-depth Lord Ashcroft poll – the one that gave Sadiq Khan a 27-point lead over his Conservative challenger Susan Hall, an admirer of Lee Anderson MP – also found that 61 per cent of Londoners believe that, overall, immigration has improved Britain compared with 39 per cent who think it’s made things worse. That’s a far more favourable balance than found in national surveys. And when asked to make their choice of the three most important issues for the country from a list of 21, 17 per cent of Londoners picked immigration – again, far from insignificant, but, in joint sixth position, not as elevated as it is in the thinking of Britons as a whole.

Call it decisive and responsible action to address legitimate concerns or call it pandering to prejudice and fear, the government’s new move on immigration has, of course, been informed by political calculation. It knows which parliamentary seats and which types of voters represent – forgive the analogy – lifeboats for their sinking electoral prospects and, by and large, they aren’t clustered in the capital. Perhaps it has also factored in the Migration Observatory’s cautious estimate that net migration was likely have to have dropped substantially in the next couple of years anyway, even without a major change of policy. If that happens, they will be able to boast of having arranged it.

Whatever, even if the Prime Minister’s headline-grabby gambit in this emotive realm can eventually be claimed to have paid off, it won’t do him much good in another area voters care about, a buoyant, growing economy, which only London can fuel. The latter now looks even further away, thanks to the impact the immigration ploy is expected by such as BusinessLDN and London Higher to have.

No surprise there. It’s been a while since London and Londoners were a Conservative priority, no matter how much harm that has done – including to everywhere else.

X/Twitter: On London and Dave Hill. Threads: DaveHillOnLondon. If you value On London and its coverage of the capital, become a supporter or a paying subscriber to Dave Hill’s personal Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. In return, you’ll get a big, weekly London newsletter and offers of free tickets to top London events.

Categories: Comment

London Mayor and business group blast government plan to cut net migration

Sadiq Khan and one of the capital’s leading business organisations have reacted strongly against new government measures to reduce legal migration to the UK, saying it will damage the capital’s and the country’s economies at a time of serious shortages of labour and skills.

BusinessLDN, whose membership includes major employers such as Arup, Landsec and Heathrow along with leading universities, criticised the decision to sharply increase the minimum salary workers from overseas must earn from £26,200 to £38,700, with policy delivery director Mark Hilton saying it will “make it much harder for firms to access the talent they need to drive growth”.

The Mayor, too, highlighted “acute staff shortages” in “many vital sectors in the capital” including construction, hospitality and social care, describing the government’s move as its “latest wrong-headed attack on migration” in the wake of the UK’s departure from the European Union an in the context of what he called a “lack of investment in skills training in the UK”.

The changes to visa eligibility, announced by new Home Secretary James Cleverly, a former member of the London Assembly and of Boris Johnson’s mayoral team, followed the release of figures showing that 745,000 more people came to live in the country in 2022 than moved elsewhere.

This was the highest “net migration” figure ever, despite repeated Conservative promises to bring the figure down since they came to power in 2010. Cleverly claimed that 300,000 who were eligible to come to the UK in 2022 would not have been under the new rules.

But Hilton said the government should instead “put the economics before the politics by working with businesses on building an immigration system which is flexible, fair and responsive, while also implementing long-term measures that help to boost the domestic pipeline of talent like reforming the apprenticeship levy”.

Khan said the changes have created a risk of “real and substantial damage to London’s economy as it continues to recover from the pandemic” and also praised “the contribution of successive generations of immigrants” to London, describing them as “integral to growing our economy and enriching our cultural and social life”.

The increase in migration to the UK since Brexit has come primarily from workers and students outside the European Union under the government’s new “points-based system” which started in 2021 and made it easier for employers to recruit from other countries.

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, said last week on BBC Radio 4’s The Briefing Room, before Cleverly’s announcement, that were immigration policy to stay broadly the same it would be “reasonable to assume” that net migration would “start to come down” because, typically, a rise in immigration is followed by one in emigration as some of the new arrivals, often students, leave again.

Sumption added that the net migration figure could “fall to somewhere in the 300,000 range” in the coming years, though she stressed that there were many uncertainties.

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Categories: News

Jack Brown: Lessons for devolution from the Covid inquiry hearings

It was “Mayors day” at the Covid-19 Inquiry last week. Sadiq Khan, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and Mayor of the Liverpool City Region Steve Rotherham gave evidence about their experiences during the pandemic. Not many appear to have been positive. I watched Mayor Khan’s and Mayor Burnham’s testimonies. Plenty of differences emerged, but also some key common themes – with perhaps some lessons for the future of devolved government in the UK.

The clearest point of consensus was that the voices of devolved government in England were excluded from decision making at the centre and that their inclusion might have led to better decisions, improving outcomes for both public health and the economy and even saving lives.

Khan focused on his exclusion from early COBRA meetings, the forum where Prime Ministers bring together politicians, civil servants and those at the coal face of a crisis in an attempt to grasp it effectively. As the UK’s largest, most densely-populated city and its most connected international transport hub, London was likely to be hit first. Its demographics, housing situation and economy are different from other parts of the country, and it faced different challenges. In addition, its Mayor was in regular contact with a network of other world city Mayors, built up over years. By late February March 2020, some of those cities were already dealing with the pandemic.

Mayor Khan’s team felt he had something to contribute as well as good reason to be kept informed, and repeatedly attempted to get him in the room. They were repeatedly rebuffed, and decisions were made without London-specific input. Greater Manchester would be similarly left out. With Manchester two-to-three weeks behind London in terms of the spread of the virus, Burnham argued at the inquiry that the first centrally-imposed lockdown was lifted without consultation when London was ready, but Manchester was not. This left his city with a higher case rate for the rest of 2020.

Burnham’s claim of “London-centric” decision-making was the Guardian’s headline. But as Khan repeatedly highlighted, Londoners’ specific needs went unconsidered too. It is true that the capital became the UK’s premier “working from home” city, and Burnham was right to point out that fewer Mancunians were able to work remotely. But London’s sheer size means that, even if the proportions are lower, there were (and are) more zero-hours workers in the capital than in the entire North West of England. Both cities’ leaders claimed the needs of such workers, under pressure to travel to work throughout the pandemic even when it was dangerous to do so, were not given enough consideration. And this is just one example.

Watching Khan’s and Burnham’s evidence, I was struck by the sense of powerlessness that both seem to have felt. The response of Burnham, a former health secretary, at the time was more combative, with regular media appearances and that famous press conference attacking the government’s insufficient offer of funding to support Greater Manchester’s move into Tier 3 restrictions.

Burnham claims that intervention was followed by a “punishment beating” from central government: “Because we took that stand, they decided to make an example of us.” For his part, Khan recalled feeling “almost winded” upon hearing the government’s view of the state of the pandemic at the first COBRA meeting he was actually invited to, in mid-March 2020. He described a feeling of “lack of power, lack of influence”.

Neither Khan nor Burnham are above criticism, of course. They had some agency, and perhaps could have done things differently. It is also true that many of the decisions faced by the government during the pandemic were unbelievably complex and difficult, and the greater input from the two Mayors may not ultimately have made much difference. And of course, these were two Labour Mayors giving their views on a Conservative national government’s handling of a crisis which was already thought bad enough to warrant an inquiry in the first place. But, given that Khan and Burnham are different in so many ways yet came up against such similar challenges, it seems difficult to argue that there weren’t fundamental issues.

Some of this may have been about personal relationships. Khan highlighted that he had been invited to COBRA meetings by Theresa May following the Grenfell Tower fire and by Liz Truss as part of the Operation London Bridge planning of events following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Perhaps a different Prime Minister or administration would have brought the Mayor of the UK’s most connected city and most densely-populated region in to those early Covid gatherings.

There is also a structural issue. That the involvement of city Mayors was deemed an optional extra speaks to where we are as a nation regarding English devolution. One solution might be to hope that central and city-region government are all good pals in advance of next time we plan to have a pandemic. Another might be to introduce some more formal changes to the way government operates, in order to reduce the impact of individual likes and dislikes.

A new report by King’s College London has called for a “council of mayors” to be established on a statutory basis, establishing a forum between English metro mayors and the Prime Minister, with a requirement for a certain number of meetings a year. Whether this is the right mechanism or not, the principle seems sound.

National governments tend to centralise in a crisis. There can be good reasons for this: when faced with huge external shocks, there is often a sense that someone somewhere must “get a grip” and mobilise the state’s response. And pandemic experiments in localism, such as the “tiering” system, do not appear to have been great successes. But if policy must be made centrally, surely a little input from those tasked with leading locally could lead to better outcomes.

Jack Brown is a lecturer in London Studies at King’s College and author of The London Problem. X/Twitter: Jack Brown and On London. Image of Sadiq Khan at Covid hearing from Sky News. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to editor and publisher Dave Hill’s Substack. You will even get things for your money.

Categories: Comment

Jane Hewland & Harry Scoffin: How leasehold traps Londoners – and must be stopped

In London, there are 1.4 million leasehold flats. Two years ago, leasehold constituted 99 per cent of all new-build sales in the capital. Leaseholds make up 36 per cent of its housing stock and are often the only properties ordinary buyers have a hope of ever affording.

The typical leaseholder in London is highly likely to have a mortgage and be a first-time buyer, according to the Office for National Statistics. The ONS also says that the average service charge in London is around £2,000 a year, while Hamptons finds that 20 per cent of leaseholders in the capital pay over double that. These costs are in addition to mortgage, utility and ground rent payments. Just eight per cent of Londoners are opposed to abolishing leasehold.

In recent years, a consensus has emerged that leasehold tenure is an inefficient, iniquitous and unnecessarily expensive way of organising flats. Beyond England and Wales, most countries, including Scotland, have democratic, resident-controlled systems of flat living, which go by names like “tenement”, “condominium”, “co-operative” and “strata title”. There are no feudal-style overlord freeholders calling the shots in a block of flats and dictating the charges that flat owners must pay in order to keep their homes.

Our equivalent, called “commonhold”, introduced in 2002, was meant to be reinvigorated by the government after years of reform work and an expert Commonhold Council working group. Curiously, commonhold is absent from the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill brought before Parliament last week.

In 2020, the Competition and Markets Authority flagged leasehold as “a real concern”, noting that leaseholders are “captive consumers”. That same year, the Law Commission concluded that freeholder and leaseholder interests are “diametrically opposed” and that “any financial gain for the landlord will be at the expense of the leaseholder” as part of its proposed package of reforms that would mean far greater controls on existing leaseholds and the widespread adoption of commonhold.

The London Assembly’s housing committee has also urged a move away from the “archaic feudal hangover” of leasehold. “The sooner Londoners can benefit from a more modern and equitable system of commonhold the better, bringing us in line with homeowners the world over,” it concluded.

The House of Commons housing select committee “found a system which stacked the odds in the favour of developers, freeholders and managing agents …Leaseholders were too often treated not as homeowners or customers, but as a source of steady profit.” Crucially, the cross-party group added that “there is little evidence that professional freeholders provide a better level of service than can be provided by leaseholders themselves.”

A report put out earlier this year by the London School of Economics tall residential buildings research group also refused to endorse the sector lobby line that commercial freeholders provide economies of scale and value for money to leaseholders.

If you want to know why the obscure-sounding Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill is so important for Londoners and why we are campaigning vigorously to toughen it up, here are the stories of just two London flat-buyers. They illustrate why, if this rotten system isn’t drastically reformed or, better still, abolished, then generations of the capital’s hardworking people will never have a decent home to call their own.


A young programmer we know made an offer on a lovely first-floor flat in a converted Victorian house in Peckham. He was shocked by what he received from his solicitor. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Why are they calling me a tenant? Why do I have a landlord, if I’m buying a flat? And look at this!” He pointed to a clause that said if he didn’t pay his service charges or ground rent within 14 days, his lease could be forfeit. “What does it even mean?”

Jamie is one of many young first-time buyers to plunge into his “purchase” with little idea of what is involved. Leasehold is the only way to get a flat and everyone else is doing it, so it must be OK, right? Wrong!

Jamie wasn’t actually buying the flat, we had to explain. He wouldn’t own a single brick or pane of glass. With leasehold, the flat “buyer” is only purchasing a saleable right to occupy property. When they outgrow the flat, they can sell what time is left on the lease to someone else. But legally, they are only ever a tenant.

The value of their investment therefore is largely dependent on the choices made by someone else: their landlord, or freeholder. If the landlord brings up the service charges to eye-watering levels, that will erode the value of the leaseholder’s interest. If the landlord chooses to scrimp on maintenance to “sweat the asset”, that can also put downward pressure on the most important purchase of your life.

As for forfeiture, it’s another word for cancellation. If you don’t pay your bills within a set time, the landlord can apply to cancel your lease and the flat becomes his again. “So it’s like if I don’t pay the mortgage,” Jamie asked. “They sell the flat, take the debt and give me what’s left over?”

Wrong again! If your lease is ever forfeited, you don’t get a penny in compensation. Any more than you would, if a short-term landlord kicked you out. Every penny you paid for the flat is gone, but you still owe the mortgage. Forfeiture is rare. A landlord now has to go through quite a court process to be allowed to do it, but the threat of forfeiture hangs over every leaseholder when facing another inflated set of service charge demands.

Jamie was even more shocked when we explained that he and the other leasehold tenants would have to pay for any repairs his building needed. With short-term rentals, repair and maintenance are a landlord’s responsibility. With leasehold, the tenants pay for everything. Not only that, they have no say over how much those repairs cost, which contractors are used, or what work is done. They have to pay to insure the building, but the landlord places that insurance and can take kickbacks from insurance companies that leaseholders have no right to know about.

But at least Jamie can afford a leasehold flat in a well-built period property. He is avoiding the far worse situation of buying into one of the sprawling “milking parlour” developments where the opportunities for leaseholder abuse are legion.


But aren’t there legal remedies? Ways to fight bad freeholders? Everyone we know who has turned to the law for help wishes they hadn’t bothered. Cases drag on for years. They take a terrible toll on physical and mental health. The property tribunal can’t award costs, so litigating eats through your finances and is too easily swayed by the firepower of rich freeholders.

To add insult to injury, most leases currently allow landlords to put their legal expenses onto the service charge, so leaseholders pay the costs of both sides. And after decades of the tinkering that passes for reform, the law is now so complicated and so contradictory that a win under one piece of legislation can be overturned by another. The fight is never-ending.

Pamela is an accountant and a magistrate. If anyone has the knowledge and experience to fight high charges and poor maintenance, it’s her. A decade ago, her estate’s residents association began the process of applying to the tribunal for a court-appointed manager to take over the running of it. And five years ago, she claimed that secret commissions had been incorrectly paid to a landlord-related company out of the insurance costs she and her neighbours had been charged.

She won both cases. But that was far from the end of it. Her freeholder challenged the management order multiple times, forcing her back in front of a judge over and over. Like the rest of the court system, first-tier tribunals are overloaded. Months, even years, can go by before hearings are scheduled. Panels don’t always have the expertise or the commercial nous needed. And what was supposed to be a simple people’s court, where leaseholders could safely represent themselves in a low cost forum, has been overwhelmed by armies of King’s Counsels acting for freeholders. For our side, it’s like going up against guided missiles with bows and arrows.

Pamela and her fellow residents are now trying for a third time to renew its court-appointed manager. But since their first application, made nearly a decade ago, we’ve had the Building Safety Act. This may wipe out the tribunal’s right to take over the management of any estate, leaving leaseholders with no protection at all against a rapacious freeholder. A right Pamela fought so hard for for over a decade has potentially been cruelly snatched away.

She now faces two separate hearings, scheduled to take place between undergoing surgeries for a major illness. And as for the insurance case, begun five years ago, leaseholders haven’t seen a penny of the £1.5 million in commissions they thought they’d won back. The freeholder is appealing – of course – and it could end up at the highest court in the land, which would take many more years.

This is no way to live and it’s certainly not homeownership. The answer to the problem isn’t to create more toxic leaseholds. That is why there is one major change, which the new Bill must enact.

If this government, for whatever reason, will not bring in commonhold, we have a compromise. It utilises the leasehold structure but, crucially, would give future flat buyers joint control of their new-build homes and charges from day one. Developers couldn’t complain, as many of them have been using the arrangement for decades. It would be simple to draft in legislative terms, too, and wouldn’t cost the Treasury a penny.

It’s called “share of freehold”. So, please, if you have a vote, write and tell your MP today to back any amendments that require all new leasehold flats be sold with a “share of freehold” and leaseholder-controlled “resident management company”.

Jane Hewland and Harry Scoffin are members of the Free Leaseholders campaign, which can be followed on X/Twitter. If you value On London and its coverage of the capital, become a supporter or a paying subscriber to Dave Hill’s personal Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. In return, you’ll get a big, weekly London newsletter and offers of free tickets to top London events.

Categories: Comment

Poem: The Longest Garden. By Vic Keegan

The Longest Garden
Let’s praise London’s secret fact
The jungle by the railway track
A garden unfolding as your carriage moves
The burden of the day it subtly soothes
Blackberries unpicked and elderflowers
That calm the weight of passing hours
Ash, oak and fledgling trees
Catch the eye with flashing ease
Convolvulus, the brute, is also there
All plants on its rampage soon to ensnare
And what’s that whizzing past my eyes
Could it be Berberis with butterflies
While Rose bay willow drooping in the rain
Flutters in the wind of our speeding train
We know this land should have better uses
(Build more houses. No excuses)
But until then while politicians harden
Just inhale the bliss of London’s lost garden.
Photograph from TfL. Buy a whole book of poems by Victor Keegan HERE.
Categories: Culture

Abigail Wood: Mayor’s Action Plan for older Londoners is welcome – but must mean action!

There are more than one million people over the age of 65 in the capital and 2.5 million Londoners over 50. They add up to more than the entire population of Paris and that is just one reason why we should be talking about the Mayor’s Action Plan to improve the lives of older Londoners. Entitled Towards an Age Friendly London, it has been in development since 2019 and was launched at a low-key event at City Hall last week.

Producing such a plan is a core requirement for cities signed up to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Global Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities, as London did in 2018. The WHO’s age-friendly framework is based around eight “domains” such as housing, transport and civic, cultural and social participation.

Age UK London welcomes Mayor Khan’s plan because the commitment to improving the lives of older people, as long as it is backed up by impactful activity, matters for older Londoners now and those who will become older Londoners in the future. As the fastest-growing age demographic in the city, their needs should be planned for and seen as providing an opportunity.

In a world that often seeks to divide generations from each other, it is vital that the Mayor champions the contribution of older Londoners. It feels that too often people need to be reminded of all the things older Londoners do to make the capital a better place. They are volunteers, community leaders, carers, employees, employers, shoppers, friends and neighbours. There are hundreds of reasons why we need a mayoral action plan, but I will highlight just three.

Firstly, even though Age UK London research has found that most older Londoners are positive about living in the city – 59 per cent in total it is shocking that only one in five see London as a place where older people are valued.

Secondly, we have the highest rate of poverty among older people in the country (24 per cent) and for some groups it is much worse – poverty rates are at 48 per cent for older social housing tenants.

Thirdly, although we know London is a city of inequalities, people often don’t realise just how stark the contrasts are among older Londoners. Our research has shown that, across a range of areas, some older Londoners have much worse experiences than others. A higher proportion of older black, Asian and minority ethnic Londoners have worse experiences, and the same is true for LGBTQ+ older Londoners.

People with long-term health conditions or who are disabled are much more likely to have poorer experiences of services and experience loneliness. We also know that London can be a difficult place for older social tenants, private renters, those living alone and those reliant on just their pension.

The full Action Plan contains over 10,500 words. It sets out the things that are within the Mayor’s power to deliver and proposes actions which, if they have their intended impact, will make a real difference. Those actions have primarily been derived from existing mayoral strategies, initiatives, and other plans. In the housing chapter, for example, some actions are designed with all ages in mind but should hopefully benefit older people, for example support for private renters and the provision of more affordable homes. Other actions are more specifically designed with older people in mind, such as support for downsizing and more specialist housing.

It will come as no surprise that at Age UK London think actions speak louder than words, and the coming months need to be all about seeing changes that really do improve people’s lives. We will be watching closely to see what the mayoral candidates say about older Londoners and making London more age-friendly.

Age UK London is a member of the London Age-Friendly Forum (LAFF), along with Wise Age, Positive Ageing in London, U3A London region, Greater London Forum for Older People, Civil Service Pensioners Alliance, and members of the National Pensioners Convention. LAFF want older Londoners to feel a sense of ownership of the plan.

We want to ensure that staff across the Greater London Authority group are aware of the plan so that age-friendliness becomes mainstreamed into all activity. We would also like to hear a bit more enthusiasm and noise, including from the Mayor himself, about the Action Plan so that older Londoners, the boroughs and the public more widely are aware of it and can, if necessary, hold the Mayor to account.

Abigail Wood is chief executive officer of Age UK London. Follow her on X/Twitter. Photograph from City Hall. If you value On London and its coverage of the capital, become a supporter or a paying subscriber to publisher and editor Dave Hill’s personal Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. In return, you’ll get a big, weekly London newsletter and offers of free tickets to top London events.

Categories: Comment