The ability of Brexit to dominate every conversation continues to know no bounds. At MIPIM, the property industry’s international conference which took place last week in Cannes, it was a constant – particularly as news broke of votes won and lost, and what these might mean for the short and longer-term success of the UK economy.
There was widespread incredulity among investors and business leaders that the government is still putting so much effort into planning for no deal so late in the day, when it should be taken off the table. “This is not a natural disaster, it’s entirely avoidable!” exclaimed one chairman with considerable government experience. Although parliament’s vote to extend Article 50 has led some to breathe a sigh of relief, the only way we can guarantee that unilaterally – and avoid a no deal – is to revoke Article 50 and create some much needed breathing space; something we’ve advocated at London First for some time.
Thankfully, beyond the Brexit debate, there are many businesses eager to look ahead and focus on the future of our capital in the decades to come, not least how we ensure it continues to drive prosperity and growth across the whole of the UK.
London is the business capital of the world – and so many business leaders I speak to are just as committed as I am to keeping it that way. But we all recognise that these are complex times and that there are big questions to answer on how London maintains its reputation as a great place to invest, live and work, particularly as our place in the world changes.
For my part, I was pleased to see the recent City of London report which showed that the capital is the best global location for innovation, ahead of the likes of Singapore, New York and Paris. Importantly, it was also ahead in terms of turning that innovation into a profitable proposition.
We now need to harness this advantage as we turn our attention to meeting London’s challenges and embracing its opportunities – not least by considering how the capital retains the people it needs to power the economy, which means taking a new approach to housing, immigration and infrastructure.
London is becoming a city of renters, with almost half of its inhabitants living in either affordable or private rented accommodation. Rental is forecast to be the most common form of housing by 2025. Within that changing landscape, the role of Build to Rent is becoming an important part of how we make the sector work for people – raising standards and taking some of the uncertainty out of the process – as well as creating a new investment opportunity in the capital. This was a major talking point at MIPIM and it’s clear that if we can house the talent we need, it will go a long way towards keeping the city attractive as a place to live and work in the years to come.
But we also need to get our approach to immigration right so that London remains open to talent from across the globe, and so that all Europeans who call it home continue to feel welcome. At London First, we’ve argued that critical to getting this right is lowering the government’s proposed salary threshold for skilled migrants from £30,000 to match the level of the London Living Wage – around £20,000 annually. This would keep us open to a broader range of skills used in many jobs, from lab technicians to nurses, which pay less than £30,000; prevent a sudden cliff-edge in recruitment; and allow employers time to adjust to changes. As the government’s White Paper consultation progresses over the next few months, it is vital that the voices of business and unions spanning all sectors from health, food and drink to construction are heard on this important issue.
Keeping London connected with the country and the rest of the world is essential for cementing its role as a global city, and as a capital serving the whole of the UK. We need to get Crossrail over the finish line and hand over the construction baton to Crossrail 2, along with other national infrastructure. We need to expand our global air links, by enabling growth across southeast airports with an expanded Heathrow and better rail links. And we need to enhance our digital infrastructure, giving Londoners better connectivity at home, in the office and on the move.
But keeping the city vibrant and successful goes beyond that – we must have a positive vision for its future. And as we explore what that next horizon is, we must embrace the best of what London is now, as well as a forward-looking vision of what it can become. Beyond the uncertainties of Brexit, if we can retain our spark, our people and our relevance, as well as our innovative drive, I am confident our capital city can continue to prosper for the benefit of the whole UK.
Jasmine Whitbread is chief executive of leading business organisation London First.