This year marks 20 years since the creation of the Greater London Authority (GLA), comprising the Mayor of London and the London Assembly, as the newest incarnation of city-wide London government. Its establishment in 2000 ended a 14-year spell without such an institution after Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLA’s predecessor, the Greater London Council (GLC), in 1986. The end of the GLC also meant waving goodbye to its flag and coat of arms, and the advent of the GLA did not include a new heraldry for London to replace them. By next year, the GLA will have been around for as long as the GLC. A new “logo for London” is long overdue.
It is peculiar that London, whose regional layer of government is now so pervasive in the lives of its people, does not have its civic identity represented in this form. It is not the case with England’s counties and other regions. The White Rose of Yorkshire has been around for centuries and has promptly replaced the European Union flag at the offices of Redcar & Cleveland Council. Manchester’s recent experience demonstrates the importance of such symbols. The massive outpouring of support following the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, including the charity tattoo appeal, largely centred around its unofficial emblem, the worker bee.
There have been recent moves to address the issue in London. In February, the then London Assembly Member Tom Copley, now the Mayor’s deputy for housing, proposed a motion to have the GLC’s coat of arms adopted by the GLA. He argued that the GLA has established itself in the lives of Londoners and that reviving the old symbols would help to further forge a civic identity.
In a time of nauseating “place-branding” by developers and others – who refer to Holborn and Bloomsbury as “Midtown”, Fitzrovia as “Noho”, and Kilburn as “North Maida Vale” – and amid post-Brexit business uncertainty, it is imperative that London affirms its position as both a world-class city and an integral part of English and British culture. A logo for the city can help. But what is the best option?
There is plenty of precedent to draw on. The GLC’s long-lived predecessor, the London County Council (LCC), displayed both flags and coats of arms, the latter described when granted by the College of Arms in 1914 as “simple in character and in every way suggestive of the corporate life of London”. It can still be seen in the city, including on Chelsea Bridge and the entrance to Holland Park. The LCC adopted flag of similar design soon afterwards. The GLC arms, granted in 1966, represent elements of both the LCC arms and the former Middlesex County Council.
The London boroughs too have coats of arms. These were their primary visual identifiers until some, like Camden and Hackney, began using new corporate branding. Generally, these have eroded council heritage and identity. Haringey is perhaps the starkest example of this. Its coat of arms nods to the broadcasting past of Alexandra Palace – the original home of BBC TV – and its lightning bolts are highly distinctive and visually pleasing. Haringey retained the bolts in successor designs until 2015 when they were discarded for the current £86,000 logo, which one may be forgiven for mistaking for a child’s artwork. There are some less offensive examples: Islington and Hillingdon, for instance, achieve a happy medium.
Other London symbols have proven highly successful. Transport for London (TfL) recently exported the Legible London wayfinding signs to Hong Kong, restarting its international consulting arm in an attempt to help close its gaping deficit. In addition, TfL has also been licensing its trademarks for branded goods, most of them based on the iconic Underground roundel. The LU lightbox and Done London clothing collection are examples of recent success in this area (by the way, how cool are these?)
The roundel is the unmistakable unofficial logo of London and licensing it both generates income and brings the capital into homes around the world, furthering London’s appeal for tourism and investment. The Mayor’s PR agency, London and Partners, are surely glad of it. But there would be numerous issues in adopting it as a logo for London as a city. It is, for example, TfL’s property and could cause confusion if used as something other than the hallmark of London’s public transport.
Other symbols of London also have their appeal: from iconic landmarks to telephone boxes, black cabs, or the Routemaster bus. Battersea Power Station features successfully in the logo for Wandsworth, but would not work on a London-wide level. Most are variations on a theme and are always changing. Some are decaying. Telephone boxes are disappearing across London, replaced by black screens. Even Big Ben is currently covered up for restoration works.
London is more than the sum of its physical parts and its visual identity should represent this. It is also seen as rather unlike the rest of the UK: more cosmopolitan, more liberal, richer, too powerful. Some feel the capital dominates national life, but does not represent or take much interest in the rest of the nation. It would, then, be right to focus on London’s connections with the wider UK, through and beyond its status as capital. In the LCC coat of arms, the Thames, then London’s economic lifeblood, was represented by waves, and the municipality was signified by a mural crown. But there was also a lion on a St George’s cross, showing London to be the royal centre of England. The GLC arms are a simplified version, retaining the waves and replacing the rest with the crown from the coat of arms of Middlesex, but the St George element is gone.
If the GLC arms were adopted by the GLA, as the London Assembly thinks they should be, this omission might be unhelpful in the current political climate, as London seeks more devolved powers from central government and regional inequality has become a hot-button issue. It is clear that London’s regional layer of government needs a visual expression of its identity as an outward-looking city that Londoners can rally around and that also conveys its connection with the rest of England and UK.
Mohammad Khpal is a King’s College MA student in London’s history and governance.
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