London: The Levelling Down Monitor

London: The Levelling Down Monitor

In his Introduction to the Conservative Party’s 2019 general election manifesto, Boris Johnson said his government had already mapped out a programme to “level up, spreading opportunity across the whole United Kingdom”. The document said this meant “not just investing in our great towns and cities, as well as our rural and coastal areas, but giving them far more control of how that investment is made”. It continued: “In the 21st century, we need to get away from the idea that ‘Whitehall knows best’ and that all growth must inevitably start in London.”

Many would agree with those manifesto objectives, including plenty in London who recognise that it is unhealthy for the UK economy to be so heavily dependent on that of its capital city – London generates nearly a quarter of the nation’s economic output and around one third of its taxes – while other big cities lag far behind, and who would like to see far greater devolution of power, including over the use of resources, to regional and local government across the nation.

And yet much of what the Johnson government has done in the name of “levelling up” seems to have nakedly electoral goals, concerned less with enabling cities and regions outside of London to enjoy greater autonomy and control over their own affairs than with making a public performance of depriving London of resources and pulling rank over the London Mayor to impose its own priorities on the capital, most notably in the key areas of transport and strategic planning.

This is damaging not only to London but also, precisely because the rest of the UK is so reliant on its capital city, to everywhere else – you will not “level up” the country by levelling London down. At the same time, serious progress towards the goal of closing the economic productivity gap between London and most of the rest of the country – one pursued with little success by successive national governments since the war – has yet to be made.

Just as the populist untruth that London and Londoners, many of whom struggle daily with poverty, prosper at the expense of fellow Britons goes largely unchallenged, the government’s policy discrimination against London and its top-down interventions in City Hall affairs go largely unreported.

On London is an exception to that failing and this page is dedicated to gathering all examples of anti-London policy into one place. As well as being compiled here in the Levelling Down Monitor, new examples will be reported separately on the website. Input to the project comes from a wide range of London-focused individuals and organisations, to whom gratitude is extended. The most recent examples of levelling down London appear at the top of the list.

Last updated, 24 October 2021.

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October 2021 – In advance of the budget and spending review, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announces £6.9 billion of transport funding for English cities. He laters admits that only a fraction of it hadn’t been announced before, but even so London is pointedly excluded.

October 2021 – At the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Boris Johnson’s speech contained crowd-pleasing jibes about “north London dinner parties” and “left Islington lawyers” amid signals that his priority is maintaining his new-found support in the north of England. London Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Richard Burge complained that Johnson’s presents London “almost as a villain” in his “levelling up” narrative. Prior to the conference, the former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry had written an article denouncing “southern privilege”. London Tory MPS at the conference were unhappy with Berry’s remarks, and AM Andrew Boff told a fringe event that problems his party is having with road schemes in the capital stem from Johnson’s adviser Andrew Gilligan.

July 2021 – PM’s transport adviser Andrew Gilligan blocks funding to London councils which, in his view have “prematurely” ended active travel schemes he wants kept going, having pressured the Mayor’s cycling and walking commissioner and Transport for London to take a more aggressive approach to “backsliding councils“.

July 2021 – Bids by seven groups of London colleges and businesses for government “skills accelerator” schemes were all unsuccessful. Eighteen bids from other parts of England received all the money. London weighting for Higher Education officially removed.

June 2021 – TfL emergency funding extended until 11 December with Grant Shapps stating that the arrangement is “fair to the national taxpayer” and that “the government will continue to review passenger demand” in the capital. The package requires more savings and sources of income, a review of TfL’s pension scheme and a programme for additional Tube automation. Shapps claims the deal combines helping the capital with “continuing to spend money on vital infrastructure projects to level up the national transport network outside of London”. A campaign led by London TravelWatch is later launched to prevent further bus service cuts.

March 2021 – Government publishes prospectus for its £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund, announced in the November 2020 spending review. Analysis by FT reveals clear bias towards Tory areas, some of them affluent, with only two London local authorities, Newham and Barking & Dagenham, eligible for a scheme that “could have been designed to exclude the capital,” as Richard Brown put it.

January 2021 – Education secretary Gavin Williamson decides to remove the “London weighting” element from the government’s Higher Education teaching grant, designed to recognise higher costs in the capital, saying “the levelling-up agenda is key to this government, and we think it is inconsistent with this to invest additional money in London providers.” A plea by Sadiq Khan to reconsider had no effect.

January 2021 – Government launches £3.6 billion Towns Fund, describing it as “part of the government’s plans to level up our regions. Robert Jenrick says it is designed to help “rebalance the national economy and level up our regions through the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine and Oxford-Cambridge Arc. London town centres are excluded.

January 2021 – TfL submits its suggestions for becoming financially sustainable by 2023, as ordered to by Shapps. These include introducing a Greater London Boundary charge to be paid by non-London motorists entering the capital and retaining the share of Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) currently paid by Londoners but almost entirely spent elsewhere in the country. By the end of the month, Shapps appeared to publicly dismissed the idea for devolving VED and in February he publicly rubbished the boundary charge suggestion, which he would be able to block.

November 2020 – National Infrastructure Strategy is published, saying (page 15) “the government is investing in national transport and pivoting investment away from London, ensuring every region has great connectivity”.

October/November 2020 – A second short-term funding deal for TfL is provided, this time for £1 billion (including £95 million of further borrowing). Shapps instructs the Mayor to impose above inflation fare increases from January and to maintain the new, increased congestion charge levels and operating hours, along with the changes to concessionary fares for over-60s and under 18s, adding that if the Mayor and TfL wish to re-introduce the latter “they will meet these costs themselves”. He also orders TfL to “co-operate” with a “government-led review of driverless trains” and says a new “government-led working-level oversight group will be created”. TfL is further told to “produce a single, comprehensive management plan” for achieving “financial sustainability by 2023”) by January 2021.

September 2020 – City Hall releases documents showing that various attempts to secure government funding to repair Hammersmith Bridge had been rebuffed. Grant Shapps had previously claimed that “a failure of leadership” in London was to blame for the bridge’s poor condition.

September 2020 – Government officials argue that VAT refunds on purchases made in the UK by overseas visitors should be scrapped, because the scheme “does not benefit the whole of the UK equally” and is “largely centred on London“.

May 2020 – After Covid safety measures shatter TfL’s finances due to collapse of income from fares, government emergency funding of £1.6 billion is provided (including £505 million of additional borrowing), with a string of conditions attached, including the “temporary” suspension of free peak time travel for over-60s and all free travel for under-18s, instructions to increase the level and operating hours of the congestion charge and the implementation of “active travel” schemes and “detailed monitoring” of “operational performance” under government supervision. Two, “special representatives” of government are to attend all TfL board meetings with powers to “request additional information” and report to transport Secretary Grant Shapps. One  of them is the Prime Minister’s special adviser on transport, his erstwhile media support Andrew Gilligan.

March 2020 – Communities secretary Robert Jenrick writes to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, criticising his “intend to publish” draft London Plan, the master blueprint for the capital’s spatial development, and directing him to make changes to key policies.

December 2019Conservative Party general election manifesto commits to “devolving power to people and places across the UK” with “full devolution across England…so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny”. It adds: “We must get away from the idea that “all growth must inevitably start in London.” (The Labour manifesto also mentions “levelling up” and says a “national transformation fund unit” will be located in the north of England).

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