We knew it was coming, but the blow is no softer for that. National government has confirmed that London local government budgets are to go on being squeezed while authorities elsewhere are favoured. Minister James Brokenshire, a London MP, has come up with a bit more money, but less than a third of what the boroughs say they collectively need to avoid reducing services still more after cutting, cutting, cutting for nearly a decade. The poorest of them have been hardest hit. The calculation seems to be that beating up London pays. It’s a flirtation with national calamity. Why is no one on the national political stage saying so for the whole UK to hear?
London, or shall we say “London”, now serves as a multi-purpose metaphor for all that Brexit Britain dislikes. Portrayals of the city as a worshipper of greed and hogger of taxpayer pounds flourish alongside its depiction as a crime-ridden “hellhole”, pocked with “no go zones”. These do not come solely from outside. Internal critics bring their own variations on these themes, railing against inflows of foreign wealth and foreign labour alike. Centre for London’s new report on the capital’s relationships with the rest of the UK found that “London” has increasingly become an unflattering shorthand for the home of national government and its failings, including indifference to the rest of the country.
There are issue of proper concern in some of this, but for the most part, they are populist distortions, misinformed and sometimes chillingly extreme. Yet national government and national opposition alike make no strong attempt to challenge them. Theresa May’s administration and many Conservative MPs, though wracked and riven over how best to depart the European Union, seem instinctively as one in regarding London as a politically hostile and even somewhat unBritish place, notwithstanding its increasingly vital role in powering the UK economy (for which, inconveniently, Margaret Thatcher was largely responsible). The Labour opposition, with its closet Leave leader and fractured electoral base, shares common ground with the Tories in signalling disquiet over regional disparities, with the crowd-pleasing implication that “rich London” is too powerful and indulged and therefore responsible for the “north-south divide”.
The intellectual poverty of these positions is as depressing as the material poverty of far too many Londoners – perhaps the most glaring omission from the stream of anti-London sentiment that seems to have gathered strength in recent years. A combination of low pay, capped benefits and sky high housing costs have contributed to London having the highest poverty rate in the whole country. And that is just one example of why London-bashing is a misguided and damaging response to the UK’s current uneasy condition and a disastrous premise on which to build any prospectus for its future.
The other week I sat in on a ward panel meeting in an Inner London borough, with local councillors and police officers, civic-minded residents and a group of teenage boys and girls and youth workers. It was both a heartening and a saddening experience: heartening, because there was so much goodwill and good intention in the room; saddening, because the police were frank about what they can do with limited numbers, because the councillors and youth workers were candid about the difficulties of helping the young, and because the young people themselves were so clear about their fears, and their parents’ fears, about travelling too far from home. Here were problems that could be much more effectively addressed by investing more money in them, but such provision in “rich London” just keeps on shrinking.
This is very bad news for the city, fraying its social fabric and draining the optimism of too many of its people. It brought to mind a report published almost a year ago, commissioned by King’s College, which explored scenarios for London in 2030 and beyond. One was for the capital to become a “super city”, still open and international and boosted by the public investment it needs under a bold devolution settlement. At the other end of the scale, the report sketched a return to the London of the 1970s – shrinking, declining, more parochial, more closed and starved of national government support.
London needs to take steps to deal with its reputation problem and must continue to try to solve its many problems as best it can. But the slighting of the city, the undeclared, perhaps almost unconscious, cross-party consensus at Westminster that it has become politically unappealing to praise and support, whichever “London” that may be, is unfair on the city and its people and an indictment of the fearfulness, denial and myopic calculation that has such a grip at the top of Westminster politics at a time in UK history when the exact opposite is required.