On the 31 January 2020, I walked along the darkened south bank of the Thames by way of City Hall before crossing Westminster Bridge to rendezvous with Josh Neicho and report the rejoicing of Leavers as the Brexit hour of 11:00 p.m. approached. “The war is over, and we have won,” declared Nigel Farage from a stage in Parliament Square. Along Whitehall, government offices were bathed in lights of red, white and blue.
The former Mayor Boris Johnson, sitting in Number 10 with a fresh, fat majority, had brought all this about in a UK capital city whose electorate had voted by 60% to 40% to remain. The scene felt incongruous and was, in moments, disconcerting. And it was only the start of a year of strangeness, uncertainty and even fear.
It wasn’t like that straight away. During the first fortnight of 2020 I met people in cafés in Victoria, Waterloo and near Tower Bridge to discuss rough sleeping, transport issues and London’s cultural sector. Business as usual. I dropped in on a distinguished Tory former politician in his office in Westminster. On the 16 January, my wife and I were in Rome, celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. Twelve days later, the London Society, of which I am a trustee, announced its programme of events for the coming year.
During February, I went to Hammersmith to cover a campaign event of Independent London Mayor candidate Rory Stewart. The Green Party’s Siân Berry and the Liberal Democrats’ Siobhan Benita launched their campaigns in the same month. I met some traders from the Seven Sisters indoor market (known to some as the Latin Village) and went to a special screening of a movie in a studio just off Carnaby Street.
There was a mayoral campaign hustings at the LSE. Sadiq Khan and the Conservatives’ Shaun Bailey did not take part, but Khan kicked off his bid for a second term soon after, on 3 March, at a community centre in Hackney. There was no social distancing and no one wore a mask. Speaking to journalists after his speech Khan advised Londoners to “keep calm and carry on” in response to growing alarm about the coronavirus, which was beginning to hit some other European countries hard.
The Mayor expressed confidence in the expert guidance he was receiving. “The advice is there’s no reason at all to worry about using the Tube or the buses,” he said. He added that, although reviewing things every day, he did not “foresee a situation where we are advising people not to use public transport” or “where we’re saying, don’t go to concerts, or banning people from being in confined spaces.” Neither did he anticipate the elections for Mayor and London Assembly, due on 7 May, being delayed because of the virus.
That night, I chaired a round table discussion at Arup HQ in Fitzrovia about London’s future and the government’s “levelling up” agenda. At the end, some attendees bade each other jokey farewells, touching shoes rather than shaking hands. But one person had been unable to attend, because she was so concerned about relatives in Italy – where I had enjoyed a tranquil, romantic time so recently – who had contracted what was starting to be more widely referred to as Covid-19. And after I, without thinking, shook the hand of a guest as he left the Underground carriage we had travelled on together, I worried that I should not have done it.
Only a handful of Covid cases had been identified in London at that time, including two at King’s College hospital in Camberwell and one at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. But the London Book Fair had been cancelled and on 9 March, Rory Stewart called on the government to close the country’s schools and cancel “medium and large” gatherings of people.
Benita criticised him for “sowing distrust in expert advice” and three days later, on 12 March, as case numbers in London exceeded 100, the Mayor told an audience in Battersea that Londoners should follow that government expert advice to wash their hands frequently and self-isolate if they thought they had symptoms. But the government was about to step up its response from what it called the “containment” to the “delay” phase of its four-part action plan. Things were about to move very fast.
On 14 March, I went on an outreach shift with Thames Reach, sharing a car with an experienced rough sleeper worker. We used hand sanitiser, but not masks. We met at New Cross, where it was clear from across the street that a local pub was still doing good business. On 16 March, I paid a visit to a housing association chief. There was hand sanitiser at the office entrance and we waved elbows when I left.
On the same day, having attended a COBR meeting, the Mayor again urged Londoners to follow the latest government advice. By now, this was much sterner, especially regarding the capital – London was described by the PM as being “a few weeks ahead” of the rest of the country in terms of infection levels. Pressure was building on the health service. “All Londoners should now stop all non-essential social contact,” the Mayor said. That included “working from home wherever possible”. He warned of “an immensely challenging time to come”.
On Wednesday 18 March, the government said all schools in the UK would close from the end of the week. On the same day, the Mayor and Transport for London announced that public transport services would be sharply scaled back and people urged not to use them unless they were “critical workers”. Up to 40 Tube stations were to be shut completely. On the evening of 23 March, Johnson informed the nation that it “must stay at home” except to shop, exercise, attend to medical needs or to travel to work if absolutely necessary. The police would enforce the new measures. The first lockdown had begun.
By then, another strand of London’s 2020 story was underway. On 13 March, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government Robert Jenrick had written a letter to Mayor Khan, directing him to make big changes to his proposed new London Plan – the capital’s master planning blueprint – and bluntly criticising his housing policies too. It was an extraordinary example of a member of Johnson’s team pulling rank on their boss’s successor as London Mayor. It would not be the last.
As the letter, with its extraordinary political attack, was being composed, the elections for London Mayor and London Assembly were still due to take place. That afternoon they were postponed for one year. Yet that morning, the Mayor informed BBC London that Chief Medical Officer Chris Witty had told him there was no reason for the elections not to go ahead. London’s multi-agency resilience panel shaped up to co-ordinate the response to what the World Health Organisation had formally declared a pandemic. A rather pompous letter from Jenrick told them to do things they were doing already and, to some, read like another snub to the Mayor.
Were the nation’s government and the leader of its capital city, who chairs the board of its transport body and is its elected police and crime commissioner, in much meaningful communication as a national crisis gripped? On 24 March, at one of the government’s by this time regular televised press briefings, health secretary Matt Hancock directly contradicted the Mayor’s approach to running the Tube. Khan hit back. At the beginning of March, the Mayor and the government were speaking with one voice. By the end of it, they were at loggerheads.
Not everything went wrong: by the beginning of April a huge and largely successful drive to get rough sleepers indoors was underway. But a senior Croydon councillor – my brother-in-law, Sean Fitzsimons – warned that his borough’s many care homes were “a ticking time bomb” of Covid infection, a view shared by the leader of Enfield and others.
Several other (non-Conservative) borough leaders voiced their despair over shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and there was fury over Jenrick rowing back from an initial pledge to recompense boroughs (and local authorities across England) for extra spending at a time when the virus was hitting their income from Business Rates and Council Tax.
Big mobilisations of local voluntary groups took place in an attempt to ensure that the poor, the isolated and those excluded from the government’s support packages were not hungry or forgotten. There were fears for private renters facing loss of income and eviction. By the middle of the month, front door boarding of most London buses was stopped in order to give drivers greater protection, though by then five bus service workers had died with the virus. The Mayor began calling for non-medical face-coverings or masks to be made compulsory on public transport. At that time, national social distancing guidance did not recommend mask-wearing at all. Khan intervention established his as a voice advising stricter measures than the government was prepared to take against the virus.
Some began to think ahead to how the city could be re-made for the better “after all this is over”, though Rory Stewart was not among them – he dropped out of the mayoral race in early May. Mostly, though, that month was a continuing tale of exhausted health service workers and uneven and point-scoring crisis management. Transport for London, hugely dependent on income from fares, faced financial collapse. It turned for help to a Conservative national government which saw TfL’s plight as an opportunity to impose its will on a devolved public body headed by a Labour Mayor it didn’t like and to make a performance of punishing the capital in the name of “levelling up” the UK. Five months after winning an election at which it promised “full devolution across England”, Boris Johnson’s government was demolishing London’s 20-year-old devolution settlement.
The government’s first TfL bailout, signed off on 14 May, came with big strings attached, including an agreement to increase the level and operating hours of the congestion charge – an arrangement Conservative mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey, trailing badly in opinion polls, blamed on the Mayor when it was introduced the following month, but which had, in fact, been strongly endorsed by the Prime Minister’s transport adviser, his former media supporter Andrew Gilligan. So had the instruction to suspend free travel for under-18s, a measure the Mayor and others fervently opposed and which never actually came into effect.
Gilligan’s preoccupations were evident too in the agreement’s requirement to foster more “active travel”, and on this point the Mayor, TfL and the government were in accord. The goals of the “streetspace” programme were to aid social distancing and place “clean, green and sustainable travel” at the heart of London’s recovery. It entailed fencing off road space for pedestrians, putting in temporary cycle lanes (not all of which looked very temporary) and the introduction of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), designed to stop through traffic in residential neighbourhoods. After the first bailout deal, TfL commissioner Mike Brown gave way to his successor, Andy Byford. He started at the end of the month.
June was a month of discontent. London saw a huge Black Lives Matter protest, responding to the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on 25 May. The event and others like it coincided with and further focussed attention on concerns over Covid’s disproportionate effects on poorer Londoners – more likely to be in customer-facing jobs, overcrowded homes and to be from black or other ethnic minority groups – and on the general performance of the Metropolitan Police, which had greatly increased its use of stop-and-search during lockdown. It also highlighted wider concerns over Londoners’ adherence (or the lack of it) to social distancing rules. A string of illegal street parties had to be broken up.
The Mayor set up a commission to “review and improve diversity across London’s public realm” on the same day as a statue of slave trader Robert Milligan was removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands by the Canal and River Trust. There followed intense debate about statues and representations of London history, some of it intelligent, much of it not.
The economic costs of Covid were becoming more apparent, with Central London’s vital hospitality, cultural and retail sectors already struggling to survive. The financial predicaments of the boroughs and the GLA became clearer. Robert Jenrick, by now embroiled in the Westferry Printworks controversy, provided some help to the boroughs, but not enough in the view of London Councils.
On 23 June, with infection rates falling, the government announced that lockdown measures would be eased. But the following day, the Mayor revealed his plan to move the GLA to a different building in order to make savings. Two new panels were set up to aid London’s recovery, but when Johnson made a speech in Dudley about building a post-virus recovery it got a lukewarm reception here.
The fourth day of July was informally billed by some as “Super Saturday”, as bars and restaurants reopened under Covid-constrained conditions and Chancellor Rushi Sunak’s “eat out to help out” scheme came into popular effect. There was optimistic debate about a future emergence of a less dense, more polycentric, “15-minute city”, but with Central London footfall still in the doldrums and the theatre world in despair there were few immediate grounds for joy. There were more high-profile lockdown breaches.
August saw a small return to office working and a small pick up in public transport use. But although there was evidence of economic energy in some Outer London places, the centre was still struggling. There were repeated appeals by business groups and the Mayor for extra, targeted help from the Chancellor. Growth in the number of Universal Credit claimants was already higher in London than elsewhere, particularly among the young.
That mixed picture of a tentative recovery amid emerging long-term damage was still in place as London entered the autumn months. In early September, I vowed to get out and about more, spend some money and see more of the city On London exists to write about. And there was no lack of action on the streets, if you knew which ones to visit. Great hopes and commitment had been invested in Streetspace, but there was loud opposition to aspects of it too: LTNs were the focus of protests in Islington, Wandsworth, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Ealing, Lewisham and elsewhere. Separately, more than 300 arrests were made at the first of a series of Extinction Rebellion protests. But elsewhere in the country, infection rates were rising. A “second wave” was coming in, the PM said. The Mayor, by now routinely favouring further and faster Covid restrictions than the Westminster invasion force up river, told him to get a move on.
September also brought political embarrassment for the Lib Dems after one of their two shortlisted candidates to succeed Siobhan Benita, who had dropped out in July, was suspended after her past tactics as a Tory came to light. Meanwhile, the government continued to slight the capital and Sadiq Khan. Robert Jenrick’s planning reform White Paper, published in August, displayed no recognition of London’s particular needs and characteristics and didn’t even deign to mention the city’s Mayor. The London Plan dispute was still not resolved. Then, Jenrick offered the city just a fraction of the affordable housing funds it says it needs. And transport continued to be exploited as a medium for anti-London messaging, with transport secretary Grant Shapps sighing heavily to any media ready to listen that he would have to sort out the problems with the long-closed Hammersmith Bridge, presumably hoping no one would notice that he had pledged to do just that the previous December and done precisely nothing ever since.
In mid-October, a new three-tier system of restrictions was introduced. London was placed in the middle “high alert” Tier 2, meaning no household mixing indoors and pubs and restaurants closing at 10.00. Mayor Khan, in line with Labour’s new leader Kier Starmer, called for a much stricter two-to-three week “circuit-breaker” lockdown in England instead. Meanwhile, fraught fresh negotiations continued between TfL and the Department for Transport (or Andrew Gilligan, or both) over a second bailout, some of them in public. The Prime Minister told the House of Commons that Mayor Khan was “entirely” to blame for TfL’s financial problems. It was a bare-faced lie.
The eventual six-month “Hallowe’en Agreement” contained none of the more extreme suggestions Shapps had proposed to TfL in a leaked letter, but still demonstrated the government’s contempt for the autonomy of London’s regional governance bodies and its economically illiterate – or maybe plain dishonest – attempts to portray Londoners as enjoying special privileges at the expense of taxpayers elsewhere.
The Mayor claimed victory, but Johnson’s tanks are still parked all over City Hall’s lawn. TfL has until 11 January to come up with its ideas for its longer term financial stability before another round of wrangling begins. Meanwhile, the government has yet to release the KPMG review of TfL’s finances, commissioned with public money to inform the the first bailout deliberations. Even Andy Byford has only been allowed to see a heavily redacted version. Why the secrecy?
The Mayor opened Centre For London’s annual conference on 2 November, held online, with a speech in which he warned of tough years ahead and accused the government of using Covid as cover for hoarding power “by stealth”. Hopes of a vaccine coming on stream were rising. But on 5 November, the government again placed the whole of England under a full, if slightly different, lockdown. The plan was to get into a position where the economy could be partly re-opened again in December in order to “save Christmas”.
London’s hospitality, retail and cultural sectors kept asking for more targeted help, but haven’t had it. Croydon Council declared itself bust and Bexley sought extra financial freedom to fund services. The Mayor confirmed that City Hall will relocate to the Crystal building in the Royal Docks. In the run-up to the Chancellor’s spending review, the Mayor and business groups set out a road to economic recovery. But the review itself contained almost nothing for the capital: spending would “pivot away” from London in the name of “levelling up”, that hazy aspiration backed by no clear policy programme or strategy.
London entered December restored to Tier 2, with the Mayor urging us to go shopping while sticking closely to the rules. Gilligan finally made a contribution to a TfL board meeting, having not bothered with the first two in his role of “special representative” of the government. It was every bit as charming as expected. The Mayor and Jenrick continued sparring over the London Plan, which is now, at long last, set for approval, complete with an implausible new housing delivery target and a hint of yet more government colonisation to come.
On 16 December, London was moved into the “very high alert” Tier 3 category. , which London First called “deeply disappointing”. On the same day, the Mayor announced that both fares and mayoral Council Tax will rise next year, with more of the latter to come. The PM was still hoping to save Christmas. But just three days later, on Saturday 19th, he placed London, where a new Covid variant was travelling at high speed, in a new Tier 4. Richard Burge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was angered, accusing Johnson of failing to act “in a prudent and timely manner to protect the economy of his capital city and his country”.
On Christmas Eve, Johnson hailed the striking of a trade deal with the EU as grounds for “glad tidings and great joy”. Not everyone is convinced, and the role of the City of London in Brexit Britain has yet to be fully determined. Yesterday, education secretary Gavin Williamson said that primary schools in 22 of London’s 32 boroughs would not reopen until 11 January, but those in the other ten would. He didn’t explain why. As this article goes live at 14:50 on New Year’s Eve, he still hasn’t.
Throughout this miserable year I have made a particular point of taking my custom to my local corner shop in my bit of Hackney. I like it there for many reasons, one of which is that it represents everything Nigel Farage fears and dislikes about Britain in general and London in particular. Cosmopolitan, enterprising and a bit improvised, it lifts my spirits with every visit.
London and, in particular, London’s least secure and affluent people, have had a terribly hard and often painful year. The capital has been battered, blamed and picked on throughout a pandemic which has exposed both its biggest failings and its greatest strengths. The shape of its future is uncertain. But one thing is for sure – a strong, open and resilient global London remains absolutely crucial to the survival and revival of this nation under siege. And when I, a refugee from small town England, purchase my cappuccino and croissant from the Turkish or Georgian or Indian barista up the road and walk back to my old Victorian home through my part of the greatest city on Earth, I know we shall never surrender.
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