Britain is going through a Golden Age of pretending, and none of the big political parties are exempt: they pretend about building more houses; they pretend about climate change; they pretend about Brexit. They also pretend about London: they pretend that it gets more than its “fair” share of public investment; they pretend it is part of what’s wrong with the country, when in reality it is one of its few big successes; they pretend the rest of the country would not be impoverished without it.
All of this, we already knew. But as his party confers uneasily in Manchester, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has taken the Great Pretending to a surreal new extreme. He now wants us to believe that a brilliant long-term answer to Britain’s long-term problems is to, in his words, “change our economic geography – away from cities”.
What a stupendous wheeze. Instead of nurturing the large urban centres from which practically all national wealth and national tax revenues come, let’s look instead to the plucky, triple-locked, Union Jack-waving pensioners of Little Sticksville to create employment, drive productivity and fund the police and NHS.
Let’s set up “new town boards” to deliver new town plans! Let’s call this “empowering local communities”! Of course, in order to protect the British way of life we’re going to jolly well stop the actual elected local authorities that serve such towns doing things we think our voters there don’t want, such as lowering speed limits or making sure a chemist is no more than a 15-minute walk away (that evil international socialist “war on motorists” plot).
And look! We’re going to give them a few shillings to start them off! We’ve picked 55 places, not entirely at random, to get £1 billion! That is to say, £20 million each over the next ten years, which will pay for a new maypole, some patriotic bunting and resurfacing of the local car-park! And where are those “overlooked” towns, soon to “take back control” of their destinies? Well, there are six in the North East, ten in the North West and four in the Midlands! There are seven in Scotland and four in Wales! But, funnily enough, not one of them is in Greater London. Not even Uxbridge, which PM Sunak seems to believe threw him a survival lifeline in July.
And, of course, as the captain of the Sinking Ship Britannia pretends the secret of buoyancy lies in sprucing up the empty shopfronts of Barnsley and Clacton-on-Sea, he also appears to have finally decided against extending HS2 to Manchester. Downing Street insists “no final decisions have been taken”, but most journalists seem to think there’s some pretending going on there too. Were further proof of Sunak’s gift for foolishness required, he’s been receiving advice from an unusual chum of Boris Johnson.
Where does this clamour of pork barrels and false economies leave London and Londoners? Not quite at the end of the HS2 line yet, though that hole in the heart of Euston still looks far from being filled, but still every bit as much on the wrong end of “levelling up”, however you define it, as it has been since “Boris” won his 2019 majority.
Johnson’s administration gormlessly hamstrung Transport for London throughout the pandemic and generally made life for London’s directly elected Mayor as difficult as it could. Sunak’s has shown little sign of answering the pleas of London business groups for the return of VAT-free shopping, more support for sub-market priced housing, a proper long-term funding deal for TfL or help with addressing skills shortages. Instead, it has discouraged overseas students, fed hostility to migrants and postured about “stepping in” to alter the London Plan.
London, which Johnson as Mayor lauded as the engine room of the UK economy, more than ever holds the key to any UK economic recovery and any regional “levelling up” worthy of the name. It is still the goose that lays the nation’s golden eggs. Yet the UK’s national government treats it with disdain – as, at best, an electoral irrelevance or, at worst, as a political punchbag.
Perhaps the PM will have something positive to say about the the capital in his conference speech. But perhaps even hoping so is just another kind of pretending.
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