A month-by-month account of key themes and events.
London and the rest of England had been released from Covid-19 restrictions for almost a year and Brexit had been pronounced “done” in 2020. But the character and scale of the capital’s recovery from those events was not yet clear.
Its economy was still facing labour shortages, partly Brexit-related. Its health service was still suffering. London was coping with half of the homeless households in the country. A new and worrying trend was a fall in demand for primary school places. Yet the Conservative national government seemed indifferent, if not hostile, to helping the city, on which the whole country depends, grow stronger.
Sadiq Khan called for closer ties with Europe – a break with the Labour leadership line. On London joined forces with The London Society to host a discussion about what it would be like if London became an independent state. On balance, maybe not a good idea. Tempting, though. Tempting.
On London celebrated its sixth birthday. In other news, Conservative opponents of Sadiq Khan’s plan to expand the ULEZ to cover all of Greater London came up with a legal challenge. The Mayor did not budge but, amid calls to do more to help those set to be affected, hinted that he might oblige.
London’s economy was proving its resilience, but Centre for Cities figures found a “hidden army” of economically inactive Londoners who wished they weren’t, requests to restore VAT-free shopping for overseas visitors continued falling on deaf government ears, and a London Property Alliance survey of global cities suggested London’s rivals were gaining on it.
Meanwhile, the government’s “levelling up” agenda became ever more vague and no more friendly to the capital. Still, London Councils chair Georgia Gould’s Banister Fletcher Lecture for The London Society presented a renewal vision to cheer us up.
Was London at a crossroads? Tony Travers gave a lecture on the subject. Think tank Centre for Cities said the government should help London recover its lost productivity growth. The budget was a disappointment.
Louise Casey published her devastating review of the state of the Metropolitan Police Service. London Councils calculated that the capital’s homeless people outnumbered the entire population of Oxford.
Then there was transport: TfL’s budget problems continued and the government announced that work completing HS2’s connection to Euston would be delayed, causing TfL to buy more Elizabeth line trains and history to repeat itself as farce. A Tory councillor in Bromley described the coming ULEZ expansion as “socialism in its darkest form”.
Anti-Londonism had struck again in the form of cuts to English National Opera’s budget and attempts to make it move out of the capital. Labour and Conservative MPs united in opposing this. The backdrop was a boom in London theatre, but a continuing struggle in other parts of the culture sector.
A change in Right to Buy rules, allowing councils to retain the money from sales of their housing stock, was welcomed as a “shot in the arm” as boroughs got in shape for a hoped-for housebuilding revival.
There was glum news for London Tories as an opinion poll of general election voting intentions put them a massive 40 points behind Labour. A story broke about a reality TV show tycoon running for London Mayor. That was on April Fools’ Day, by the way.
The Conservatives got started on choosing a mayoral candidate for 2024. The coronation of King Charles III took place, followed by questions about the arrest of anti-monarchist protesters and of “night star” volunteers unconnected with the royal event. The Met was embarrassed by the discovery of documents about the unsolved murder of Daniel Morgan that had been locked in a cupboard for years. Sadiq Khan said, in line with Casey, that he’d be setting up an advisory London Policing Board.
The Prime Minister made an incorrect claim about Boris Johnson’s record on housing when he was Mayor and the current Mayor announced he had met both his own target for getting council homes started and the government’s for all “affordable” dwellings in London under his first affordable homes programme.
Debates continued about better regulation of private renting, what and how to build anything post-Covid and with net zero in mind, and plans for redeveloping Liverpool Street station. The row about a further ULEZ expansion continued too, but was the issue going to be quite as electorally important as its opponents hoped? To the dismay of London Higher, the government decided to stop the dependants of overseas masters students coming to join them.
Sharp divisions opened up between, on the one side, London’s Mayor and its business community and, on the other, an increasingly strident Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, about immigration. The Met joined the Mayor in opposing any idea of an asylum-seeker barge being moored in the Royal Docks.
Andy Lord was confirmed as the new Commissioner of TfL, which said it was on course for an operating surplus but still needed help from the government with capital spending. The Tories produced a shortlist of three mayoral candidate contenders which, to much surprise, excluded minister for London Paul Scully. One of the chosen trio quickly ran into a spot of bother. A video emerged of guests dancing and drinking at a December 2020 lockdown party for former mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey.
A wide-ranging poll by Redfield & Wilton, to which On London writers contributed ideas, produced a range of intriguing findings, including strong approval for Sadiq Khan and a comfortable voting intention lead over an as yet unselected Tory rival. In other news, an On London event was held above the editor’s local corner shop.
London’s Conservatives chose the hard right Susan Hall as their challenger to Sadiq Khan for 2024. A few days later, her party narrowly held the parliamentary seat of Uxbridge in a by-election Labour was expected to win (though On London had warned it was not guaranteed). A single issue campaign opposing the ULEZ expansion appeared to have saved them. Labour leader Keir Starmer responded by rebuking Khan. Tories rejoiced and vowed to oppose a so-called “war on motorists“. A High Court challenge to the ULEZ expansion plan failed.
London’s housing problems were described as “an emergency” following a shocking report for London Councils about renting and affordability. Michael Gove went to King’s Cross to make a big speech about housing. It was notable for recognising the importance of London – a rarity from senior figures in either of the two biggest parties – and spoke of a “Docklands 2.0” vision for development down the Thames Gateway, though much of what he said was a political attack on Khan.
Gove also got involved in London planning matters by overruling both the Mayor and Westminster Council to prevent Marks and Spencers redeveloping their flagship store at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street – a plan that distilled the debate about retrofitting, the economy and conservation.
In advance of his second ULEZ expansion, Sadiq Khan extended his scrappage scheme to every Londoner with a non-compliant vehicle wishing to change it. The expansion was introduced, as scheduled, on the 29th, creating the largest clear air zone in the world. Enforcement cameras were vandalised as opposing the scheme became part of a wider nationalist hard right agenda. A poll found that slightly more Londoners supported the measure than opposed it.
More housing trouble evidence emerged: Census data showed that London has by far the highest amount of overcrowding of any English region; research for Crisis anticipated a shocking rise in the capital’s “core homelessness” figure; a Centre for London report painted a troubling picture of rising rents, homelessness and insufficient supply; there was a fall in the number of private landlords providing temporary accommodation.
And yet, London’s economy continued to prop up the nation’s as “red wall’ Conservatives complained that “levelling up” was winding down.
The police officer who had shot dead 23-year-old Chris Kaba in Streatham Hill a year before was charged with murder. Ensuing remarks of a political nature prompted Louise Casey, speaking at the first meeting of the London Policing Board, to criticise an “incredibly unhelpful” public discourse. The board itself questioned Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley about staffing levels, call-handling, the wider criminal justice system and more.
London’s schools were in the news, first over the “crumbling concrete” revelations and then because of Sadiq Khan’s free school meals programme, which ensured they were served to every London primary-age child. London’s schools continued to perform well in the face of large challenges, but skills shortages remained a large concern.
Susan Hall came under pressure over her social media back catalogue of “likes” and retweets of extremist views, but said they didn’t matter. Joyfully, the London 2012 legacy took a further step forward with the opening of the main part of UCL East. Sadly, the famous India Club on the Strand served its final meals.
At the Conservative Party conference, Susan Hall told delegates that some Jewish Londoners were “frightened” because of “the divisive attitude of Sadiq Khan”. Jewish community leaders in London pointed out that Khan, a Muslim, had a long track record of strongly supporting Jewish Londoners. Hall did not withdraw her remarks. The following day, Tory London Assembly member Andrew Boff was ejected from the conference after heckling Suella Braverman’s remarks about “gender ideology”.
Also at the Tory conference, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced he had cancelled the HS2 link between Birmingham and Manchester. It then emerged that he expected the link between Old Oak Common and Euston to be paid for by the private sector and the £6.5 billion he said it would have cost “given to the rest of the country“. All of this was news to TfL.
On 7 October, Hamas committed its atrocities in Israel. The Israeli army embarked on a ferocious retaliation. Mayor Khan visited Jewish leaders in Golders Green and described Hamas as terrorists. He also visited a charity providing medical aid for Palestinians. Later, he joined calls for a ceasefire.
Following two that showed him only a little way ahead, an opinion poll gave Sadiq Khan a massive lead over Susan Hall. Later came another. Maybe the school meals policy helped. Hall claimed that she’d had her pocket picked on the Tube, then proceeded to unravel her own story live on the radio.
London continued to be a low priority for a national government preoccupied with the next general election: the King’s Speech promised a bill to regulate pedicabs (this had been publicly promised back in April) and didn’t dump the Renters (Reform) Bill, but not much else; Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement on the 22nd of the month ended the freeze of local housing allowance, though only for the short term and there was still no return of VAT-free shopping or financial comfort for TfL.
Centre for London’s annual conference reflected a general air of anxiety. The concerns of local government were strongly expressed by the leader of Havering, whose borough is under financial pressures others can easily appreciate. At least Tube ridership numbers were still edging up. And Commissioner Rowley declined to cave in under pressure from Braverman and Sunak over the Met’s handling of pro-Palestine protests during Remembrance weekend. The following Monday, Braverman was sacked.
New Home Secretary James Cleverly, once a member of the London Assembly, announced new curbs on legal migration to come into effect in the spring. The Mayor and London business alike were not pleased. City Hall estimated that half a million Londoners could be affected by the changes in some way.
TfL at last received a capital funding allocation from the Department for Transport, but only half of what had been asked for. At the Covid Inquiry, Sadiq Khan described being excluded from government decision-making at the start of the pandemic. Whither devolution?
The Assembly was told of a “massive slump” in housebuilding, with worse to come. On London held its Christmas Party and End of Year Review, which was nice. But the suspected arson attack on the constituency office of Finchley & Golders Green MP Mike Freer was anything but. If the motivation for it has been established, it hasn’t yet been made public. Whatever it turns out to be, let it serve as a reminder of precious things the capital – and the country – must protect in 2024.