Has peace, or at least a truce, broken out between City Hall and central government? If you were at think tank Centre for London’s annual conference on Tuesday and heard the speeches by Sadiq Khan and minister for London Paul Scully, you might just have thought so.
“No love lost” has been an understated description of the frosty relationship between the Labour Mayor and the Tory incumbents of Whitehall and Westminster, but Scully struck a determinedly different note.
Khan began his keynote speech in familiar fashion. “We mustn’t forget, as the government often has, that London has some of the most deprived people in the country,” he told the conference, invoking the famous opening of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities – “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – to describe the stark disparities of the capital.
Scully, speaking later in the day, agreed, providing his own 19th Century literary reference by describing London as “in some ways akin to Disraeli’s two nations” with some of the wealthiest and some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country, including nine out of the 10 local authorities in England with the most child poverty.
There was agreement as well on the importance of London for the country’s economic success as a whole. “London is the engine that powers the UK. The UK only works when London works,” said Khan. “You can’t level up the country by levelling down London.”
That was right, the minister said: “When London does well the rest of the UK does well too.” Levelling up had been “misconstrued” as anti-London, he went on. “Pulling jobs, investment and local growth away from Londoners could not be further from the truth of what we are trying to aim for.”
Tackling disadvantage in the capital is in fact a “key focus” for the government, he added, citing £65 million Levelling Up Fund cash already allocated to projects in six London boroughs, including the World Heartbeat music project in Nine Elms, the first levelling up project in the country to open.
There was even, perhaps, a hint of a sympathetic ministerial nod towards devolution, following Khan’s plea for “more funding, more power and more resources” for the capital. “I’ll be the first to admit that central government doesn’t always have all the answers,” said Scully. “We also have to empower local leaders, who know their areas best, to tackle poverty and economic disparity, help local businesses and find local solutions to local problems.”
All sweetness and light then? Not quite. Government investment “could only go so far,” said Scully, while Khan had a sombre warning for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, urging him not to pursue an “Austerity 2.0” policy in the face of a growing cost of living crisis. “Now more than ever we need central government to step up and support us with sustained investment,” he said, setting out a shopping list including a two-year freeze on private rent levels, free school meals for all primary pupils and a hike in benefits in line with inflation.
Khan’s call came as the capital’s councils warned of a £700 million funding gap next year unless more cash was forthcoming from government, an outlook described by Camden council leader and chair of the cross-party London Councils group Georgia Gould as “beyond bleak”.
After a period where government has seemed happy to indulge anti-London sentiment, Scully’s upbeat tone was welcomed by Centre for London chief executive Nick Bowes, previously Khan’s policy chief. “Really pleased Minister for London has joined us today with a strong speech on positives of the city,” he tweeted.
So is a much-needed new approach in the offing? For Khan, as well as for London’s councils, Sunak’s budget plans due to be set out in its autumn statement later this month will be the first test. Back to Charles Dickens. It would be the “actions and policies” of central government, the Mayor said, that would determine “whether many more Londoners enjoy the best of times, or the worst of times”.
The whole of the Centre for London conference can be viewed here.
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