I went to Parliament Hill by bus and foot this morning, hoping to top up the website’s library of panoramic London images. The one above tells its own story of my endeavour’s limited success. Still, maybe a foggy picture is appropriate for this New Year’s Day as the capital plunges deeper into a long winter of Covid with its future hard to discern. And don’t be surprised if a great deal becomes much clearer in the next few months.
One reality that is already apparent to those few prepared to face and to acknowledge it is that London’s economy will become even more vital to the prosperity of the United Kingdom overall it has been even since the financial crisis of 2007-08. The centre of the capital, especially its West End, has been absolutely hammered by the collapse in footfall brought about by the virus, and the damage is still being done. It might never fully regain its former phenomenal power. But it will revive, perhaps in a revised form, and it will continue to be the nation’s principal economic engine room. Brexit too might have weakening effects – the city’s vital financial and hospitality sectors could really struggle to regain their former strength.
But Greater London’s economy as a whole, producer of nearly a quarter of the UK’s economic output and generator of nearly one third of its taxes, is famously resilient. And, crucially, it is far more economically resilient than the other, far smaller and less productive great cities of the UK. Boris Johnson can flimflam all he likes about his flimsy Brexit deal setting the nation free to crack on with “levelling up”, but, as a former London Mayor, he knows better than most that without its capital city to do the heavy lifting, the Covid Kingdom will be on its knees for a very long time, and its other regions and nations will be even more dependent on London than they were before.
It will be fascinating, if maddening, to see how the Prime Minister tries to square the political circle he now faces: he will want to keep his Red Wall switchers and London-hating Brexiters onside with promises and gifts of dubious worth and pathetic anti-London spin; at the same time, he and, crucially, Treasury officials, possess the unquestionable knowledge that investing in London pays dividends all across the land – as, of course, Johnson foghorned repeatedly when he bossed City Hall.
If the PM wants London to thrive in 2021 and beyond, he should stop doing it down. A good start would be getting rid of the dud lieutenants he allowed to mess with the city’s governance bodies and devolution settlement throughout the whole of last year. Whatever he thinks of Sadiq Khan’s planning and housing policies, they should not be dictated from on high by the slow-moving, U-turning Broker of Westferry. Transport for London’s chiefs should not have to negotiate its future funding with a sly PR man and a crank.
Don’t get your hopes up, though. We can expect plenty more gratuitous London-bashing from the usual suspects in the months leading up to the re-scheduled Mayor and Assembly elections on 6 May, perhaps partly in the hope that Tory candidate Shaun Bailey’s likely big defeat by Khan will not be quite as crushing as every opinion poll last year indicated.
My guess is that Bailey will avoid the ultimate humiliation of not even getting through to the second round of voting – although that does appear possible – but still be soundly thrashed by an incumbent who is an accomplished election strategist and sure to top up a big first round lead with the lion’s share of Liberal Democrat and Green second preferences. Apart from anything else, there is plenty of anti-Brexit and anti-government sentiment about. It was impossible to watch last night’s New Year firework and lights display without concluding that the Mayor is already mobilising for maximum support.
A heavy trouncing for Bailey – who, hopefully, will belatedly make some respectable contributions to the debate before too long – might help concentrate any wise and honest minds at Number 10 on the political as well as the economic value to the Conservative Party of treating London a bit better than they seemed to think was clever in 2020. There are still boroughs the Tories could lose control of in 2022 and parliamentary seats that might have turned red in 2019 had Labour had a credible leader and Corbynite candidates been eschewed.
These political considerations matter because some others things matter a lot more. London is not only an economic engine, it is a social entity too – a marvellous and miraculous one in countless ways, but also one with plenty of big problems to solve. As many others have rightly observed, the virus has had the effect of highlighting fractures, disadvantages and hardships that were already there and are now visibly more extreme. There is a massively job of healing and recovery to be done. The poor of London, so routinely screened out of what passes for a “levelling up” debate about regions across the political and media spectrum, must not go ignored or abandoned. The capital’s recovery must benefit them as well as the nation as a whole.
On London enters 2021 a month short of its fourth birthday. It is a small website but it is growing and it can make its voice heard. No effort will be spared to report, analyse and, now and then, hold forth about all aspects of the UK capital’s recovery and renewal in the twelve months to come.
OnLondon.co.uk provides in-depth coverage of the UK capital’s politics, development and culture. It depends greatly on donations from readers. Give £5 a month or £50 a year and you will receive the On London Extra Thursday email, which rounds up London news, views and information from a wide range of sources, plus special offers and free access to events. Click here to donate directly or contact email@example.com for bank account details. Thanks.