Dave Hill: London needs reconstructing after years of culture war

Dave Hill: London needs reconstructing after years of culture war

I won’t compare it to the Blitz. That would be wildly off target and in poor taste. But I can show you damage, injury and death. Ever since Boris Johnson won his 2019 majority by conquering Labour’s northern “red wall”, Conservatism has been making war on London, weakening its government, cutting its supply lines, subjecting it to hostile propaganda. Already wounded by Brexit and then assailed by the pandemic, the capital and its people have been resilient through it all. They are, though, in need of post-culture war reconstruction, and it shows.

Let’s begin with housing. Contrary to some accounts, the amount of social and other significantly sub-market rented homes in London has not fallen in absolute terms this century, but it has as a proportion of Greater London’s overall stock – down from 29 to 22 per cent. Meanwhile, London’s population has been rising, adding to existing demand. Where do all the extra people needing such homes end up? Often homeless and in the enlarged, insecure, too often sub-standard private rented sector, including many families with children. And there are other kinds of shortage. London needs housing reinforcements. Not nearly enough have been supplied.

Let’s look at transport, another vital form of infrastructure any growing and thriving city needs. The Elizabeth line is with us, half of it paid for with taxes directly raised in London and pretty much all the rest indirectly from London too, given the size of the tax surplus the capital generates when almost everywhere else produces none. Alas, at the same time, London’s transport authority has been coerced and sabotaged by hostile forces upstream. Our bus service has got smaller. HS2’s future is uncertain. We have Tube trains half a century old.

Policing? It is astounding that the political party which, for decades, has congratulated itself for being “tough” on law and order has obliged the Met to sell police stations and the Mayor to hike his share of Council Tax to even partly bridge its funding gap. Meanwhile, warranted officers continue to fill in for support staff because the “back office” has been thinned out, much of their IT equipment is substandard and the rest of the criminal justice system is on its knees. Crime has been rising? Surely not.

London has the highest productivity of any UK region – over 40 per cent higher per job than the UK average. Yet its productivity growth has stalled and it performs quite poorly compared with similar cities in other countries. Why? Because although London’s economy has continued to prop the country up, it isn’t making the most of itself. As well as infrastructure failings it has shortages of labour and of skills. Business groups have worked out what needs to be done, but who in Westminster has been listening?

All across the city find evidence of uphill struggles and warning signs of decline. High streets are besieged by clutter, neglect and petty theft. “People are so sick,” a local GPs told me recently, “I’ve never known it so bad.” The Mayor spoke last week of the legacy of Covid weighing heavily on London children who missed out on education during lockdowns. Borough councils strain every day for new ways to maintain services and make ends meet. Poverty, which some still believe doesn’t exist in “rich London”, grinds on.

The general election campaign is underway. Presumably, it won’t be long before Prime Minister Sunak, having already announced a tax giveaway for pensioners and the return of “national service” for the young, has a dig at London as a place where un-British values thrive. His five-bedroom house in Kensington and Old Brompton Road apartment won’t deter him from depicting Labour’s Keir Starmer as a well-off “north London lawyer” out of touch with the lives of “real people”.

Be glad that it seems unlikely to do him any good and that he’s running out of days at Number 10. But how hopeful should we be about the man and administration on course to replace him? London cannot expect Starmer to be its special friend: his victory, should it come, will primarily be owed to voters elsewhere; the capital has no monopoly on need for government help.

There are, though, grounds for cautious hope that he will recognise the city’s vital importance to his core cause of greater economic growth, that his housing policies will stay ambitious, and that his recent summit with Labour Mayors reflected a strategic purpose. Talk of deeper devolution, arguably the key to helping London help the country better by having more powers to help itself, continues.

London has not been through a war, but it’s been damaged by successive batterings, including attacks launched from Downing Street. A Labour government should waste no time getting London put back together again.

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