Dave Hill: Suddenly, government says London is ‘national asset, beyond price’. What changed?

Dave Hill: Suddenly, government says London is ‘national asset, beyond price’. What changed?

Having spent the last four years disowning, marginalising and discriminating against London in the name of “levelling up”, Conservatives in national government have changed their tune. In his big housing speech last week, the “levelling up” secretary himself, Michael Gove, professed his love of the UK capital, acknowledging its vital importance to “the nation’s economic well-being” and describing it as “a national asset beyond price”.

In recent years, London has received precious little from the sundry “levelling up” pork barrel pots local authorities have been invited to fight each other over, and Transport for London has been subjected to what its now former commissioner, Andy Byford, described as “never-ending, exhausting, frustrating, negotiations” over funding when he could have been getting on with his job. Yet there was Gove vowing to rush to London’s aid, such is his devotion to it.

He laid out a golden vision in which “all the potential of London’s urban centre” would be “unlocked” and a “mission of national importance” named “Docklands 2.0” embarked on. In pursuit of those high objectives Gove would “work with the Mayor of London,” he declared. Alas, his speechwriter mistyped: by “work with”, Gove meant “work over”.

The rest of his speech bore this out: Sadiq Khan was held responsible for a gap between the capacity for new housebuilding in London and actual net supply: Sadiq Khan was blamed for whatever it was Gove didn’t like about Old Oak Common; Sadiq Khan was found in need of having his London Plan “reshaped” by Gove so that “Docklands 2.0” can be achieved.

Only time will tell if Gove’s promised gifts to London will be bestowed or welcome. What was immediately clear was that the Conservatives, excited by Labour’s narrow failure to relieve them of Uxbridge, have seen an opportunity to attack Labour more widely by attacking the most prominent Labour politician in elected office.

The ULEZ-related element of that by-election outcome – invested with far too much significance across the political board – has been followed by Rishi Sunak’s weekend declaration of war on low traffic neighbourhoods. And Sunak followed up Gove’s opening of hostilities against Khan over housing with his own threat to “step in” to make London’s directly-elected Labour Mayor jolly well do what Conservatives, an endangered species in London, tell him to.

Suspicions that a revised misuse of London as an electoral pawn was the main reason for the capital’s prominence in Gove’s speech can only be strengthened upon close inspection of the speech itself.

Though presented as an all-new blue skies wheeze, “Docklands 2.0″ is a tribute act to a string of ancestors that never lived. Plans to massively regenerate the outer east of London go back to at least the coining of the term ‘Thames Gateway” during the premiership of John Major. A cursory google of the GLA website reveals a development programme for the sub-region of very recent vintage not unlike that sketched by Gove. Well, fancy that!

Always, the biggest gap between blueprints and reality has been a shortage of national political will, notably in the form of a reluctance to spend the necessary public money. Gove and Sunak can “step in” arm-in-arm without wiping their shoes as long as they mind their manners and bring the right-sized chequebook. But in the current economic and political circumstances, what are the chances?

The party political colouring of Gove’s speech was comically unsubtle. While Labour-dominated east and inner London – dead central Westminster Council, you’ll recall, turned red for the first time in its history last year – must have their housing capacity potential exploited to the full, the “precious low-rise and richly green character” of the city’s suburbs must be preserved. Another mistype – for “green” read “blue”.

Sunak enlarged on Gove’s hint of intervention in the affairs of the Old Oak and Park Royal mayoral development corporation – orginator, Boris Johnson – with a promise of £53 million to help fund more homes there. This gesture came in close pursuit of the publication by the Centre For Policy Studies (CPS) think tank of its thoughts about the possible use by governments of “special development orders” to push through plans of specified types in particular areas.

In the document, Park Royal is described as “an area of sheds in West London” – a spectacularly daft description of one of the largest business parks in the city, which has a near-100 per cent occupancy rate. The “sheds” in question, which house around 500 food companies and much more, should, apparently, all be heaved aside so the PM can “step in” with something else to go near to the station for HS2 (yes, that’s the fast train from Birmingham that may never arrive).

A clue to the influence of the 10-page CPS briefing note on Sunak’s big, deep thinking appears to lie in an unattributed remark from a government source, reported in the Evening Standard, about it being better to have flats and houses near stations than to have “single-storey warehouses”. CPS director Robert Colvile, a co-author of the Conservatives’ 2019 general election manifesto, with its big promises to deepen devolution, devotes considerable energies to venting his displeasure with Mayor Khan. It’s a free country, but maybe the PM should should reflect on where he gets his advice from.

Meanwhile, his is an administration using an obscure clause of the Greater London Authority Act to stop TfL building homes on Cockfosters station car park – a dazzling initiative by the man who has gone on to become Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero – and hasn’t funded either a Bakerloo line extension or a DLR link to Thamesmead, both of which would greatly boost housebuilding.

There are legitimate grounds on which a serious debate about Khan’s housing and planning policies could take place. Has he allocated his affordable homes programme money in the best ways for London and to best effect? Should he be given more of it? Has his rule that large private developments offering less than 35 per cent “genuinely affordable” homes be viability tested by City Hall prevented a larger absolute number of such homes coming through? Is his London Plan encouraging the building of the right shapes and sizes of homes? Has he, as some members of it complain, shown too little interest in the development sector in general?

If Sunak and Gove want to seriously engage with such questions, especially in the context of the mayoral election, then good. If not, a serious message for them is “cough up, or shut up and push off”.

Twitter: Dave Hill and On London. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to Dave’s Substack. Image of Michael Gove from Sky News.

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