London 2022: Railways, royalty, rejection – and leading the nation’s recovery

London 2022: Railways, royalty, rejection – and leading the nation’s recovery

On the first day of this year I published a five-point wish list for London in 2022. Surprisingly, quite a lot of my hopes have been fulfilled. Boris Johnson resigned as Prime Minister, a departure that brought an end to his courtiers’ baleful remote control of Transport for London. Work on restoring public confidence in the Metropolitan Police has begun – more on that below – and some steps have been taken towards introducing a Londonwide road-user pricing scheme. London Councils chair Georgia Gould assured me the other week that progress has been made on collaborating with Core Cities UK on green investment opportunities. The one disappointment as been the failure of London’s Conservatives, certainly at City Hall, to attune to the attitudes and aspirations of Londoners, as distinct from those of Talk TV.

Where have the last 12 months taken London and Londoners? So much has happened on the national and world stages it is easy to forget that 2022 began in the capital with a largely crowdless celebration due to Sadiq Khan’s concerns about the fast-spreading Omicron variant of Covid-19. The pandemic was still very much with us in January, with public health chief Kevin Fenton warning that infection levels remained “very high” and that a “critical phase” had not yet passed. Fallout from “partygate” also continued, resulting in Tory Assembly member Shaun Bailey going still further underground though, in the end, no police action was taken against him over his much-publicised attendance at a social event in December 2020.

Police action of a different kind occurred in February when Cressida Dick announced she would be stepping down as Metropolitan Police Commissioner, claiming she had been left with “no choice” by the Mayor, who was dissatisfied with her proposals for expunging lowlife values from the ranks. Recriminations chuntered on for months after Dick’s eventual departure in the spring, including in a report critical of Khan by Tom Winsor, but there seemed little appetite at national level to retain her. In the same month, all Covid restrictions were lifted in England almost two years after they began.

Johnson’s flailing, scandal-ridden government continued to penalise London and impede City Hall. In March it emerged that the capital would face cuts in arts funding in the name of “levelling up” and, with borough elections approaching, the then transport secretary Grant Shapps invoked an obscure clause of the GLA Act to stop TfL building homes on Cockfosters station car park. The ongoing wrangling over government funding support for TfL formed the context for the first in a series of strikes by London Underground staff members of the RMT union. The Mayor and the London Assembly moved into the new City Hall at the Royal Docks.

Local election campaigning in April took place against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (which had begun on 24 February), an associated rise in the cost of living and much discussion about whether Labour, miles ahead in opinion polls, would be yet more politically dominant in the capital after the borough votes.

That is what occurred early in May, with the party capturing long-time Conservative flagships Barnet, Wandsworth and, sensationally, Westminster, which had been Tory-run since its creation. Labour also gained council seats overall, though it lost Tower Hamlets to Lutfur Rahman and Harrow and Croydon to the Tories. Those reverses knocked some gloss off Labour’s gains, but didn’t conceal the Tories’ continuing underlying decline. Towards the end of the month the central section of the Elizabeth Line opened – a glorious day for the capital following years of problems and delays. The Bank branch of the Northern Line reopened too. And the City of London Corporation launched its Destination City strategy, designed to bring more visitors to the Square Mile.

The new “Liz Line” preceded the Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations in early June, marking her 70th year as monarch. They did not interrupt the political trench warfare between City Hall and the Johnson government over the funding of TfL, which became furiously focussed on the implications for London’s bus service. Stop-go transport funding and the inch-by-inch recovery of bus and Tube use was also embedded in debates about the post-Covid recovery of London’s economy, especially in the West End and the wider Central Activities Zone. With cost of living impacts biting and the damage done by Brexit getting harder to deny, the road to recovery looked difficult and slow. The first figures from the 2021 Census were released, showing that London’s usual resident population had grown to nearly nine million.

The resignation of Prime Minister Johnson came in July, a month that also saw London – and the rest of the country – assailed by a frightening heatwave, with temperatures rising to record highs of 40.2 degrees as measured at Heathrow and in St James’s Park on the 19th. Grass fires broke out in several locations, notably Upminster, Wennington, Pinner and Southgate. The 27th was the tenth anniversary of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, a still-recent time when the United Kingdom felt like a very different place and one that valued London rather than reviled it.

The membership of the Conservative Party set about choosing Johnson’s successor, a process that took up all of August and saw the eventual winner, Liz Truss, breaking rank with her party to praise London as the paragon of productivity it still is compared with the rest of the country, albeit adding to the already sky high pile of rubbish uttered about crime in the capital. At the end of the month, with Johnson and his hostile cronies on the way out, a TfL funding deal of half-sensible length – it will expire at the end of March 2024 – was at long last agreed. Mayor Khan called it “less than ideal“. In a pretty candid On London interview, TfL Commissioner Andy Byford called it “acceptable”.

Truss became Prime Minister in September and proceeded to plunge the economy into crisis as the nation mourned the death of Queen Elizabeth only weeks after celebrating her jubilee. London played its historic role as the location for national events, including commemorations, to perfection. The Thames was lined with an instantly legendary queue of mourners to witness the lying in state at Westminster Hall. London was also maintaining its position as the bedrock of the UK economy, as official figures estimated it was recovering from the Covid period twice as fast as anywhere else. The new Met chief, Mark Rowley, started work. Andy Byford announced he would be leaving TfL.

By the end of October, Truss had been replaced as PM by Rishi Sunak, owner of a £6.6 million mansion in Kensington, whose early attack lines against his Labour opponent, Keir Starmer, included Leave-pleasing jibes about him living in north London. Anti-London “levelling up” rhetoric was back as a government tactic. Meanwhile, with new Chancellor Jeremy Hunt faced with filling a massive financial black hole, London’s economy kept growing.

In November Hunt produced his first budget and the London Assembly heard that soaring fuel prices and other costs meant hard-up Londoners faced a “humanitarian crisis” and that more than half of Londoners said they were struggling financially compared with just over a third at the beginning of the year. Think tank Centre for London’s annual conference heard that poverty in the capital could be reduced by proven national policy measures, if only the political will existed to deploy them. As advertised, the axe fell on London’s arts funding. English National Opera was told to move out of the capital, or else.

December? Apart from snow? Sadiq Khan was comfortably reselected as Labour’s mayoral candidate for 2024. The expectation is that he will duly go ahead and seek a historic third term at City Hall. Labour produced a document about renewing democracy, including recommendations for moving power out of Whitehall, empowering Mayors and increasing local and regional government autonomy. But despite mentioning London nearly 100 times it swerved politically unpalatable realities about the UK’s dependence on the capital and recycled tiresome “north-south divide” grievance tropes.

As 2022 draws to a close, the goose that lays the nation’s golden eggs continues to be disdained by the big political parties, even as it heaves the nation back on to its feet and its many poor people struggle to keep warm and make ends meet. That’s politics. That’s Britain. That’s what London looks like having to put up with more of in 2023.

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