Charles Wright: Will the government heed London business pleas over TfL funding?

Charles Wright: Will the government heed London business pleas over TfL funding?

There has been little evidence of the government listening to Sadiq Khan throughout Transport for London’s Covid-induced cash crisis, and with the latest funding cliff-edge for the beleaguered network rapidly approaching that doesn’t look to be changing. But will the Conservatives, who still claim to be the party of business, listen to the capital’s employers?

Last week leading business lobby group London First marshalled city bosses in an eleventh-hour plea for proper TfL funding, arguing that “levelling down the country’s most powerful economic engine would hold back the UK’s economic recovery”.

Pointedly, their letter was addressed to Chancellor Rishi Sunak rather than to transport secretary Grant Shapps, presumably on the basis that the former City banker and hedge funder not only holds the purse strings but also understands that, with a net contribution to the Treasury of £36 billion a year, claims of London’s importance to the wider national economy are more than rhetoric.

City of London political chief Catherine McGuinness made a similar plea at last week’s Centre for London conference – the economic engine that is London has not yet stalled but has faltered and needs proper care, she said. The London Chamber of Commerce is in on the act too, promoting a new all-party parliamentary group for “London as a Global City” to make the case for “supporting and investing in London’s continued success for the benefit and positioning of Global Britain”.

It’s a welcome flexing of business muscle of a type not seen since the period following the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986, when the capital was left without city-wide government or obvious vehicles through which to coordinate policy and lobby for investment. That was when London First came into being, bringing major employers together to give London’s businesses a national and international voice, campaigning for the city when its prospects looked bleak.

The return of business groupings to that pitch underlines that London’s economic success and the “substantial and tangible benefits it delivers for the wider UK” cannot be taken for granted. But will the warning be heeded in the context of a “levelling-up” politics where votes are seemingly to be won by doing down the capital?

In the face of the “levelling-up” agenda London has struggled to find the most effective way to make its case. Statistics – that London has the highest poverty rate in the country, for example – don’t cut through, as Centre for London’s Nick Bowes recently pointed out. And although it is widely agreed that the argument is stronger if it comes not from politicians alone, deploying high-level numbers about the city’s contribution to UK finances is likely to be met with a “that’s your bloody GDP, not ours” retort, as a Newcastle heckler famously told Europe expert Anand Menon in a 2016 debate on the macroeconomic impact of Brexit. That is the context in which London First has been pondering changing its name.

The next few days may determine whether “levelling up” politics – ironically spearheaded by a Prime Minister who, as London Mayor, told the government “invest more in London or fall behind” – win out, leaving the capital again heading into uncharted waters and showing that his reported “fuck business” attitude to Brexit concerns extends to the capital’s business lobby, even as it finds its voice.

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