Optimism is a customary pleasure of New Year, but London enters 2018 with grounds for apprehension. For more than three decades the capital has grown in size and power, its population soaring and its economy booming, to the benefit of the entire UK. London has become a model of a global, multicultural metropolis and a certain kind of urban triumph. But that success has brought challenges that are proving hard to meet, and uncertainty now threatens the foundations from which the city’s might has grown.
“There is nothing inevitable, let alone God-given, about being a strong, successful Europe city,” said Andrew Adonis last November to a cross-party group of London politicians. You don’t have to subscribe to the full Adonis prescription for national renewal to take that point, or to accept his argument that a weakened London would be bad for the nation as a whole. And shadows of enervation are deepening.
The politics of the city give considerable cause for gloom. May’s borough elections are likely to see Labour further strengthen its position, with Barnet looking set to turn red and even Conservative strongholds such as Westminster and Wandsworth seeming vulnerable. The Liberal Democrats have hopes of reclaiming Kingston from the Tories, whose promised response to their sustained electoral slide in London has yet to materialise. But whatever the range of outcomes, no administration will be able to escape the impacts of the next round of grant cuts by central government, including the Jeremy Corbyn disciples who will almost certainly take over the running of Haringey. It will need more than oppositional polemic to make the painful budget sums add up.
Testing times are coming too for Sadiq Khan. The Mayor has been largely assured in his first 20 months at City Hall and hit exactly the right notes in his responses to 2017’s terror attacks. Almost all his formal strategies have now been published in draft form and he will hope to end this year with more of his air quality measures taking effect and the first phase of the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street complete. But the big themes of his mayoralty – of any mayoralty – could well require more hands-on attention from him.
On housing, for example, his policies appear to command the consensus within the housebuilding sector – commercial developers, housing associations and local authorities – that is a pre-requisite for getting things done, including delivering homes to rent and buy that people on low to middle incomes can afford. There have even been early signs that they are working, along with indications that total housing supply could pick up soon.
But, as Richard Brown has pointed out, much depends on developers developing. The Mayor can have direct influence on that by making it his business to do so – no deputy, however respected, can match his authority.
Khan is perceived by some as having been pretty “outward-facing” so far, giving a higher priority to good media relations than to grinding out results behind the scenes. If so, that might have to change. And such a change might require his working more closely with the sorts of people Corbynites revile. It will be interesting to see how he negotiates the tension between his need to get results for London and the pressure from Labour’s Protest Left membership to depict property developers – especially if they are foreigners, it seems – as the cause of London’s housing problems, rather than as part of the solution, as Khan knows perfectly well they are.
In transport too, the Mayor and his (very capable) team will have to mind the potentially growing gap between promises and delivery. Transport for London’s finances depend heavily on income from fares, and the combined effect of the Mayor’s continuing TFL fares freeze and fall offs in public transport use – buses in particular, but also the Underground – is starting to be felt. Khan’s election campaign mantra was that TfL was “good, but flabby” and he made various pledges about greater efficiency and new sources of revenue. These now need to be seen to have been kept and to noticeable effect. Only so much can be gained from bashing Chris Grayling over Network Rail or scolding Boris Johnson about the Garden Bridge.
Khan has so far sustained little if any political damage over policing and crime issues as a whole, perhaps partly because he’s been eloquent about the highest profile assaults on community safety – the terror attacks – and partly because the “cuts” narrative is at its most persuasive when it comes to the resourcing of the Metropolitan Police Service.
And he does not deserve to be damaged. Horrible and unnerving though they are, the recent increase in fatal stabbings in London and the spates of acid attacks and moped-enabled street thefts during 2017 should not be automatically read as symptoms of a more general upward trend in vicious street criminality, let alone a failing by the Mayor. As ever, crime headlines can be as misleading as crime statistics – an issue On London hopes to look into more closely soon. But they do serve as a reminder that the need for efficient police work and effective preventative measures, especially among young people, is at least as great as ever throughout the city.
London’s success since the 1990s has not only been about producing wealth. It can also be quantified in terms of opportunities for fulfilment and prosperity. To some degree, that has always been so: the city’s streets have never been paved with gold for all, but for millions they have been paths to greater freedom, fulfilment and personal progress. That remains the case. It is also the case that if housing costs are removed from the calculation, London’s poverty rate is lower than the rest of England’s. Yet we are now in a position where more than half of the capital’s 2.3 million people in poverty are members of households where someone works.
A combination of low pay, benefit cuts and housing and other domestic costs is undermining London’s standing as place where ordinary people’s ambitions can be realised, their potential maximised and their dreams come true. Throw the unknown implications of Brexit into the mix, and it is too easy for comfort to see the ingredients for a slide into decline. London must not let that happen. Britain cannot afford it happening. Let 2018 be the year the capital renews its ambitions to be the Good City we all need it to be.