Interview: Centre For London’s Nick Bowes on London, the nation and ‘levelling up’

Interview: Centre For London’s Nick Bowes on London, the nation and ‘levelling up’

History does not record how often a Conservative leader of Royal Kensington & Chelsea Council and a Labour leader of Burnley Borough Council have encountered each other in the past. The apparent rarity of such events makes the prospect of tomorrow’s panel discussion involving Councillor Elizabeth Campbell and Councillor Afrasiab Anwar at the annual conference of think tank Centre For London all the more intriguing. And the fact that it has been arranged at all underlines the urgency of the issue to be explored – how to improve London’s relationship with the rest of the nation.

Also in the line-up will be Centre for London’s chief executive Nick Bowes, still relatively new in the job – he was appointed in February – and still quite recently Sadiq Khan’s director of policy. On a personal level, Bowes could hardly be better-qualified for transcending the “north-south divide” mentality: though he has lived in London since September 2000 he is from Rotherham and has a PhD in economic geography from the University of Sheffield. But he is under no illusions about the strength of antipathy towards the capital of late or the importance of addressing it.

“I worry that when I speak to people outside London, particularly when I go back to my home town,  there’s a perception that for them to do better, London’s got to do worse,” he says. He also worries that few national politicians are prepared to challenge this misconception, “to say, ‘well actually no’.”

A realist, Bowes accepts that this reticence is in large part a product of Britain’s new political geography: the “battleground” constituencies where the next general election result will be decided are clustered far to Watford’s north. “London is politically not important for the Conservative Party and in the Labour Party it’s almost taken for granted. I don’t think either of the two main political parties are willing to speak up nationally for London.” Even so: “We all need to realise that London is a global city and we’re exceptionally lucky to have it. Many other countries would give anything to have a city like London”. He point outs that when Google was considering where to locate its headquarters “their choice was between London, Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris. If it didn’t come to London it wasn’t going to go to somewhere else in the UK instead”.

Tomorrow’s Centre for London discussion reflects recent debate in London business and governance circles about how best to make the city’s case to national government and to the nation at large alike. There is concern that pointing out the inescapable truths of the UK’s economic dependence on its capital – the nearly 25 per cent of national economic output it generates, the nearly £40 billion a year in taxes it exports – does more to reinforce resentment than nurture appreciation. Should London do more to stress and strengthen mutually beneficial connections with other cities, regions and, yes, towns such as Burnley and argue more persuasively that it is an ally in that amorphous notion “levelling up” rather than an enemy?

“We need to be more magnanimous as a city,” Bowes believes, picking out for special mention “some of the institutions and organisations that are based here. I feel this, as someone who wasn’t born here”. At the same time, he says “we need a degree of honesty with the public that if we’re going to solve levelling up it’s going to take 30 years and it’s got to be a national mission”. Though emphasising that the parallel is inexact, he draws one with Germany, where more than a trillion Euros have been spent on trying to lift the ex-Soviet bloc east of the country up to the standard of the west “and they’ve still got some way to go to narrow that gap”.

Though he worked for Khan, seen by some as too party-tribal as Mayor, for 11 years, Bowes believes “I’m not seen as some crazy, aggressive partisan hack – I worked with people across the political spectrum in my role at City Hall, it’s something I really enjoy.” Asked about Michael Gove’s elevation to the head of the “levelling up” ministry he is positive, revealing that Gove was invited to speak at tomorrow’s conference  and describing his appointment as “very interesting”. He sees Gove as “rather radical” and someone who knows “how to work closely with the key stakeholders and campaign groups.” Bowes warns, though, that while much of the anti-London tone of “levelling up” talk is just noise “it’s very easy for that to solidify into public policy decisions”.

Bowes pays tribute to his predecessor Ben Rogers, who founded Centre for London ten years ago and now heads the London Research and Policy Partnership. “Ben took them from nothing to where they are today, which is a fantastic achievement,” he says. Bowes sees his task as building on that inheritance by better positioning the think tank to speak up for London in the now very live debate about its future – to give it an “authoritative public policy voice” that can support politicians “but also say and do things that they can’t”.

Doing that means changing the way the think tank is funded, Bowes believes. “Historically, we’ve tended to restrict what we’ve talked about to things we were doing work on,” he says. At present, the Centre, which has a staff of 20 and an annual turnover of £1 million or so, is “overwhelmingly funded by the income we get to pay for projects, which cover our core costs. It’s very much a rolling, kind of hand-to-mouth existence.” This structure can make it difficult to move quickly to cover issues that come up suddenly, Bowes explains. He sees his challenge as finding “alternative ways of resourcing the organisation, try to find more funding towards core costs.”

That’s going to take up at least half of his time. With luck, he will continue to make interventions such as his article in September urging an “end to bickering” between different parts of the country and his sobering recent diagnosis of the chances of the government and Transport for London reaching the satisfactory long-term funding agreement the latter desperately wants. A common and continuing thread is a desire for greater devolution of powers to the capital and elsewhere.

“The type of policy interventions that would make a difference are just better done at a local level,” Bowes says. “Many communities in the North and the Midlands feel very remote from Whitehall, but so do many places in London. A local authority knows best what needs to be done in their area and the Mayor knows better than Central government what needs to be done at a strategic level.”

For all the talk of ending a “Whitehall knows best” attitude, Whitehall itself “instinctively wants to hoard power,” Bowes says. Progress towards devolution in recent decades have been fitful and dependent on the efforts of powerful individuals at the top end of government: the early days of New Labour, much of it driven by John Prescott; George Osborne pressing for “metro mayors”.

Giving London government more control over its own affairs would have complementary virtues: it would  reduce nation government’s political need to be seen to be penalising the city and free London to address the growing dual threats of deeper social divisions and an economic decline which would do nothing for the UK as a whole.

“The pandemic has reminded us that for all its successes there’s still deep inequality and deprivation in London,” Bowes says. “Covid was not a great leveller. It preyed on some people more than others because of where they lived, how they lived and their backgrounds. Over the next ten years we need to double down on making the city a much fairer place. It is an amazing city to make something of yourself. But there are a lot of people who are trapped in a way of life where they don’t ever get to do that.”

And he looks back to when he first arrived in the capital, when the mayoralty was less than six months old and although its population and prosperity had starting to rise again after four decades of decline, recovery was still in its infancy. “I remember all of the bad things about the transport system. The Tube was held together with elastic bands. I’ve seen the benefit investment has had, not just in transport but in our schools and other things. I can see why it’s easy for people to think they’ve had it really good in London they don’t need that money any more. But does the government want to risk London going backwards again?”

Photograph by Frances Carlisle. The Centre For London Conference will run from 9:30 until 17:00 tomorrow, 30 November. As well as Elizabeth Campbell and Afrasiab Anwar speakers will include Farah Benis, Kevin Fenton, Jenna Goldberg and Sadiq Khan. You can watch it HERE.

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Categories: Analysis

1 Comment

  1. Kyle Harrison says:

    I don’t believe in the theory that govt waves a magic wand and makes somewhere successful or not. London’s rise came about over the last 30 years because of the growth of finance as an industry and increased globalisation. TfL improved because a lot more people ended up using it so they could invest more money from ticket sales. Also, they could make a case to govt that public money was well spent in London since you got a good return, economically, due to London’s continued growth.

    If London does decline it will be because of economic changes that go beyond anything the govt does. Just like the decline in northern areas was fundamentally because of globalisation, off shoring of manufacturing and increased industrial competition from developing countries in Asia… Yes you could blame Maggie Thatcher, but in truth, she just ripped off the sticking plaster. The decline was because of far more fundamental reasons.

    The irony is now, London, after decades of benefiting from the global economy structure may be about to face some cold winds as the pandemic fractures globalisation: fewer tourists, fewer business travellers, fewer immigrants and more opportunity to work successfully outside of cities etc… So London begins to lose some of its educated workforce to other regions…

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