Whether by design or by accident, there is a real danger that London is at risk of being “levelled down” by the government, and the capital needs to up its game to ensure that it – and the country – does not lose out.
That was the message as veteran London-watcher Professor Tony Travers, Camden Council Leader and London Councils chair Georgia Gould and London First policy chief Muniya Barua joined forces with On London yesterday to discuss the “levelling down” challenge to the city.
Barua gave some hope that “what we hear behind closed doors” is different from the political rhetoric . “We can take it on the chin that we are not the poster child for the government at the moment,” she said, “but I don’t think the government is deliberately pursuing a policy to level down London.”
However, she warned of “a risk of accidental levelling down. We worry that, with constrained budgets, the anti-London mood music and a complacency, that ‘London will be ok’, decisions taken in a piecemeal way will chip away at the investment we need.”
Gould, while agreeing that some discussions with government have been constructive, particularly around London Councils’ Economic Recovery Framework for London, was more sceptical.
“That’s because it’s a very political issue,” she said. “Boris Johnson is a ruthlessly political person who wants to win the next election, and knowing what is best for the economy is not the same as knowing what’s good politically.”
Barua described Whitehall’s response to Transport for London’s call for further funding to support the capital’s transport network, with the current deal due to expire in under a month’s time, as the coming touchstone decision.
“There were pretty slim pickings in the budget for London,” she said, “but the lack of anything on TfL finances was the really big disappointment. We really need to see a long-term deal, and that would positively demonstrate the government’s intentions. The absence of a deal really would be levelling down London.”
TfL is already treated less well by government than other European cities, or New York, where President Biden’s stimulus package included “lots of cash” for the subway, said Travers, arguing that a more gloves-off approach was perhaps needed. “TfL need to spell out that if you starve the system of cash, bad things happen. There are consequences – closures, no maintenance, things breaking down – like in the ’70s and ’80s.”
Panellists agreed that should be part of a “new narrative”, putting the case for London with one voice. A starting point would be to “stress the idea that levelling up is about people and households, not geographical areas,” said Travers, which would make it easier to make the idea applicable to London. This should be coupled with “political education” about the problems London faces, and often has in common, with the rest of the country.
“Not enough MPs see enough of London beyond the trip from Kings Cross or Euston to Westminster,” he added. “In what world could building the Bakerloo Line extension to Walworth, for example, not be seen as levelling up?”
Tough questions need to be asked as well, Travers said: “Would Britain be helped if Paris became Europe’s leading city, rather than London? Would it be good for Britain if investment in London was invested in Paris or Amsterdam instead? Do people in the rest of the UK really think a good outcome would be lots more investment going into the EU?”
London as a whole needs to speak up for the city, said Barua, highlighting the “Levelling Up” statement agreed in August by Sadiq Khan’s London Recovery Board, which emphasised both London’s importance within the UK and the interconnectedness of the capital’s economy and those of the regions.
“It can’t just be us as politicians,” agreed Gould. “We need business, universities, voluntary and community groups, all raising the profile of the challenge London faces.”
And it was not enough simply to talk about connected economies and supply chains, the panel agreed. A more sophisticated analysis was needed, winning allies across the country, coupled with joint working. London First is already making common cause with business groups in the Midlands and the north of England, advancing mutual cases for transport improvements, said Barua.
Gould highlighted Camden working with Manchester on making the most of the new HS2 link, and new opportunities to work together with other cities on tackling climate change, with London already joining with the Core Cities grouping of 11 major regional cities to promote investment in net zero across the country.
Finally, Travers called on London MPs to do more to emulate other regional groupings of MPs working across party lines to promote their areas. And London’s advertising agencies might help with “deconstructing and changing” London’s brand, he added.
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