London is facing one of the most challenging periods in its recent history and is undoubtedly living through its biggest crisis since World War II. Over 6,000 people have tragically succumbed to the virus, and the effects have been felt across all aspects of Londoners’ lives.
Public policy has had to respond to this crisis in ways no one could have foreseen six months ago, and at speed. While there’s likely to be a detailed appraisal of our preparedness and response to Covid-19 in the months and years to come, the fallout from the way this illness struck our city is focusing minds now.
For all that London is an amazing, vibrant global city, we know it was not without its major challenges even before the coronavirus arrived. The capital’s inequality, poverty and overcrowding are among the worst in the UK. There is growing evidence that many of these problems have exacerbated the spread of the virus.
We’ve all had to change the way we live our lives in these past months and that has made many people reassess what’s important to them. The consequences of the sudden lockdown for the city’s economy and tourism industry, people’s mental health, the public transport system and much, much more are enormous and ongoing. What this means for the long-term future of the traditional office, the daily commute and Central London is still unknown. Getting the city back on its feet, even if a vaccine is found and social distancing comes to an end, is going to take a huge London-wide effort.
Against this backdrop, two crucial pieces of work have started. First, the London Transition Board, jointly chaired by Sadiq Khan and secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, Robert Jenrick, is overseeing crucial work on the immediate challenges over the coming months, particularly the continued need for social distancing and the importance of containing any future outbreaks.
The second is the London Recovery Board, co chaired by the Mayor and London Councils chair Peter John, which has assembled a powerful group of city leaders from across local government, the NHS, further and higher education, business, trade unions and civil society. The board will oversee work focused on the longer-term aspects of the city’s recovery, including how we grapple with some of the really big issues that have been laid bare as a result of Covid-19.
As part of this, the Mayor asked me to chair the London Recovery Taskforce, which sits underneath the Recovery Board and will coordinate the work. Following two meetings of the Taskforce, I’m heartened by the energy and passion driving this work forward and how so many powerful organisations are coalescing around shared endeavours.
I’m determined that the Taskforce will foster a whole new way of working. First, if the work is to have impact then it must be a true partnership. It can’t be a City Hall imposed solution or a top down response but rather a bottom up alliance of communities, groups and organisations that unleashes the collective power and drive of the whole city.
Second, I’ve encouraged everyone involved to be ambitious and have a clear vision of where we need to get to. Now is the time to think big about solutions to the city’s challenges.
Third, we have adopted a missions-based approach, leaning heavily on the work of Professor Mariana Mazzucato at University College London. This is a departure from the traditional way City Hall and others have worked, and is going to necessitate a culture change, but we are learning all the time.
Fourth, the missions-based approach involves identifying some “grand challenges” – big, overarching ambitions which everyone can support and back. So far, we have identified equality, diversity and inclusion; environment; the health of Londoners; and (understandably) recovering from one of the biggest and most rapid economic downturns in history.
Under this, we have a draft set of missions to help address those grand challenges. I’m pleased that at recent meetings of the Recovery Board (on 4 June and 28 July), members backed the first eight draft missions – on good work for all Londoners; a green new deal; digital access for all; “15 minute cities“; a strong civil society; tackling poverty; promoting health equity; and a new deal for young people. These missions are not intended to be exhaustive, but they must relate to the Covid-19 pandemic – to things which contributed to, or were exacerbated by, the spread of the virus.
They are still very much in draft form and, over the coming weeks, the aim is to knock them into shape, tighten them up and give them real focus. We will be using City Hall’s fantastic Talk London to engage Londoners and then involve community and business groups to get their views.
I’m determined that this doesn’t become an esoteric piece of work. I really want the missions to outline a series of practical interventions that will help achieve the grand challenges. These interventions could be a range of things. They might be things City Hall can do, or they might be actions others across the city can take. They might involve new ways of working or better coordination and collaboration. Or they might be asks of central government – changes to legislation or perhaps requests for additional investment.
It’s really pleasing that this work has galvanised organisations and institutions which haven’t always worked well together. I’m heartened that one council leader commented that they’d never seen City Hall and the boroughs work so well together.
We must build on this good start and keep the momentum going. This crisis presents a once in a lifetime chance for public policy to address some of the longest-standing and most deep-seated problems our city faces. Over the coming months, I hope we can support the city’s political leaders, anchor institutions, communities, civil society and businesses to unify around a citywide plan to build London back better.
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