Devolving more power to the capital might not be on the government’s to-do list, but it was firmly on local leaders’ agendas at yesterday’s Centre for London spring conference.
Focused on the needs of London’s “next economy”, the event opened with a warning from the think tank’s outgoing chief executive Nick Bowes, who said the still-powerful metropolis was nevertheless in a “state of flux” post-Brexit and Covid, with stalling growth, skills shortages and fierce competition from other global cities leaving its economy fragile. That had worrying implications for the country as well as the city, he added: “Without London firing on all cylinders, the UK will struggle to pay its bills, and we can’t take success for granted.”
Labour’s James Murray, MP for Ealing North and a shadow Treasury minister, agreed. The government’s path of “managed decline” was condemning low-income Londoners in particular to a continuing cost of living struggle, he said and pledged that Labour’s “green prosperity plan” would “support businesses in the capital to grow, and all Londoners to benefit.”
The former City Hall Deputy Mayor for Housing backed Sadiq Khan’s green new deal, which aims to double the size of the capital’s green economy, already worth £48 billion, by 2030. “That approach sees the opportunity that the climate crisis provides to boost economic growth,” Murray said. “Greening our country and the creation of new jobs and wealth are two sides of the same coin.”
The Labour party would provide “certainty” for business, he said, citing his provision of clear planning rules for developers when at City Hall, which he said have “boosted affordable housing to record levels”. The current business rates system would be abolished, and local areas would have more power over skills funding, he added. And while the Brexit debate was “over”, the “bad deal” with Europe would be improved, to benefit the Square Mile particularly.
From the Conservative perspective, Minister for London and Sutton & Cheam MP Paul Scully warned against talking the city down, asserting that “levelling up” did not mean “dampening down the success of London”. The capital, “already established as the Silicon Valley of Europe”, would not only survive but thrive, he said.
He also confirming his interest in pitching for the Tory candidacy at next year’s mayoral election. Mayor Khan was in his sights. “When you’ve got the police in special measures, you’ve got the fire brigade in special measures, you’ve got Transport for London, which is in dire financial straits, and you’ve got not enough housing being built, we need a change, and that’s what’s driving me to look at this,” he said.
There was a dig at Khan’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone expansion plans too, which Scully said could “drive down social mobility” in outer London in the absence of public transport alternatives. “We can’t sit in an ivory tower and wag our fingers,” he said. “We need greater investment in those alternatives before you’re having those punitive approaches.” As with climate change measures more generally, “we have to take people with us” he said.
But devolution was the priority for other speakers, with cross-party calls for a decisive power shift away from Whitehall coming from Kensington & Chelsea council leader Elizabeth Campbell and Camden leader and chair of the cross-party London Councils group Georgia Gould.
London needed more power, for transport investment, housing, skills and training and “making the city a more attractive place”, said Campbell. “We don’t have the powers we need to alter policy.” Campbell highlighted that while her borough levies more in business rates than Greater Manchester, less than a fifth of that take was retained. “If we can keep more, we can do more,” she argued.
Despite perceptions, Gould added, London remained a city “where housing is not accessible, safe and secure, with an economy where many people who are working are still in deep poverty.” She said that too often, “we’re not able to capture the benefit of London’s growth in our communities. We don’t have the levers we need. We need a seismic shift of power.”
The case for devolution, Gould argued, “sits hand in hand with fairness, allowing people to have much more power over decisions that affect them”. Alexander Jan, chair of the Central District Alliance business improvement district agreed. “Fairness would be retaining more of our tax base – a fair share of the resources we need to make London safe and attractive for all the people who live here,” he said.
London institutions were not waiting for government to shift its position, Gould said, with action already underway on, for example, using procurement levers to benefit the city more directly. New platforms including the Opportunity London coalition, promoting investment, were in place, and new devolution proposals would be coming forward, Campbell added.