Robert Gordon Clark: London 1990 to 2020. And what must happen next

Robert Gordon Clark: London 1990 to 2020. And what must happen next

What was, until the end of the 1980s, a capital city in long term decline that even national government seemed to have abandoned, London began its transformation in the 1990s into the powerhouse of the UK economy it is today. But now we have a Conservative government with a big majority, none of it thanks to London, elected on a manifesto that barely mentioned the capital and its needs.

All the talk in Whitehall is of “levelling up”. This is a legitimate aspiration, provided it is not about deliberately weakening London to narrow the regional gap, or failing to be ambitious for London’s potential. Meanwhile, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has had a political incentive to define himself in opposition to the Tory government during his first term of office. Yet the city he leads needs a productive and positive relationship with the former Mayor, Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Sadiq looks likely to be re-elected on 7 May, which begs the question: how should the Mayor go about improving relations with the government and tackling anti-London sentiment? Sadiq himself rightly suggests he can’t do it alone. Which begs another crucial question: how can London’s businesses, along with the Mayor and local government, make the case for supporting London most effectively?

I firmly believe that the capital’s politicians and advocates cannot sit back and allow London to decline again. Coordinated and cooperative action is needed to safeguard the city’s prosperity, as well as achieve the Mayor’s own “good growth” agenda for spreading that prosperity more evenly to all Londoners.

But before looking to London’s future, it’s worth considering its recent past.

London in the 1990s

I started working on the London political scene 30 years ago, coming to it through my interest in the arts – a topic given only one paragraph in the Conservatives’ manifesto. I joined Greater London Arts Association (GLAA) as their head of public affairs at the tender age of 29. GLAA was one of the legacy agencies created after the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1986. It had responsibility for funding arts organisations, delegated to it from the Arts Council. From the Almeida Theatre in Islington to Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford GLAA doled out around £10 million a year.

It is perhaps hard for many younger people involved in London’s politics today to image the London of the early 1990s. The GLC had struggled to tackle the city’s decline during the 1960s and especially the 1970s. While the “Big Bang” City deregulation of 1986 had re-established the London’s position as the pre-eminent financial capital of the world, the capital was still coming out of a period of stagnation and falling population. It was only from 1990 that this slide really started to reverse and the population began to grow again.

London population graph

Also in 1986, London lost its unified voice when the GLC was abolished by the Conservative government. Many senior Tories later agreed that they had “chucked the baby out with the bath water” when Margaret Thatcher, goaded by Labour’s Ken Livingstone, John McDonnell and others from across the Thames at County Hall, got rid of this vital tier of regional government.

One result was a complete lack of coordination in the capital. Two different bodies represented London’s local councils: the London Boroughs Association (mainly for Tory boroughs) and the Association of London Authorities (mainly Labour). Today, thankfully, we have London Councils, a single body representing all 33 local authorities effectively and efficiently and showing a remarkable ability to reconcile their political differences.

In 1992, we even had two rival teams trying to bid on behalf of London for the 2000 Olympics. The fact we did not even have a Mayor to sign the bid document did not stop this pointless exercise, and perhaps even spurred it on. And if you were an inward investor from another part of the world considering London as a potential location, you might get lucky and speak to one of a handful of civil servants based in a bland office block in Croydon. You get the picture.

But in 1991, a highly influential London Planning Advisory Committee (LPAC) report entitled London The World City, had flagged both the opportunities for London and the significant concerns. Greg Clark’s book The Making of a World City 1991-2021 is an excellent read on this. And when the 1992 general election was called, 13 years after Thatcher came to power and two years after she was succeeded by John Major, the lack of strategic government in London was a key area of debate. Labour made clear its intention to bring back a form of regional government and the Tories countered by suggesting a London Forum, a business-led body to promote the capital.

This proposal was in part a reaction to some serious lobbying by big business in London and to rumours that a campaign body called London First was going to be established, led by Tory fund-raising grandee and leading business man Sir Allen Sheppard (later to become Lord Sheppard of Didgemere) and that inspirational champion of good causes, Stephen O’Brien. This was envisaged as filling the void between the national Confederation of British Industry and the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), which tended to promote interests of small and medium-sized businesses.

To the surprise of many, Major won the election with a small but just about workable majority. Within months, London First was launched on a boat in the Thames. Almost simultaneously, the government set up the London Forum. Thankfully, within weeks a decision was made to combine the two bodies. But for a while after I joined London First as its head of communications, we all had to answer the phone with the bizarre welcome of, “Hello, this is London First, London Forum”.

It is no surprise that many on the left of London politics saw this body as nothing more than a political fig leaf ineffectively concealing the lack of a proper democratic voice for the capital. After the government agreed to drop the name London Forum, it took some months (if not years) for London First to establish its genuine political independence. I vividly recall my first meeting with the late Labour MP for Holborn & St. Pancras, Frank Dobson, then shadow secretary of state for employment. Frosty is not the word.

Others, however, quickly realised that making common cause with London First was the way forward. Labour’s Nicky Gavron, who I first met at GLAA in 1990, and Toby Harris (now Lord Harris) were two such pragmatic politicians, as was Baroness Sally Hamwee of the Liberal Democrats. The reason for making common cause was clear: despite the LPAC report, London’s status within government was marginalised and despite the growth in the City, public investment in education, transport and social services was low.

Yes, we had both a minister for London and a minister for transport in London (my old friend Steve Norris), but the future of Crossrail, a project championed since the mid-1980s, was still hanging in the balance. The government was about to bail out London Docklands and Canary Wharf by funding the extension to the Jubilee Line (JLE), but the Treasury was unconvinced by the growth forecasts for London’s economy that were being used to argue for Crossrail. In addition, a weird alliance between east London, left wing Hackney Council and west-of-London Tory shires lobbied against it. Despite intensive campaigning, led by the City of London Corporation and London First, Crossrail was “iced” in 1994 while the JLE went ahead.

It would take another 16 years before Crossrail finally got the green light, when the then London Mayor Boris Johnson and Chancellor George Osborne pressed the construction start button in 2010 (we now await its opening!).

Despite the delayed Crossrail decision, the period 1994-97 was a time of progress in the capital. Its local authorities worked more and more closely with the business community through the London Pride Partnership, producing a unified prospectus for the capital in 1996, which provided a vision for the new millennium.

The decision about where to locate the national football stadium led to a highly competitive battle between London – in the form of Wembley – Manchester and Birmingham. It was won by the capital, primarily on the global value of the words “London” and “Wembley”. Similarly, the nation’s central celebrations for the new millennium were located at Greenwich on the peninsula rather than in the Midlands or the North. Would either would end up in London if they were being considered today?

Meanwhile, a small paragraph in the 1992 Tory manifesto about setting up a National Lottery unleashed hundreds of millions of pounds in funding, and London started to see some great institutions transformed and new projects coming forward, most visibly the Millennium Wheel. And 1994 saw the launch of London’s first inward investment agency, London First Centre, which later merged with the London Tourist Board to become Visit London and is now part of London & Partners. Foreign direct investors finally had a professional, focused organisation to help them, located in the heart of the West End.

The debate about London’s regional voice grew too. Arguably kick-started by Trevor Philips and his London Weekend Television London debates of the early 1990s, in 1996 London First commissioned Ian Hargreaves, former editor of the Financial Times, to interview business leaders about the city’s democratic deficit and whether there was a case for a new form of regional government. His report entitled A Governor for London was highly influential in convincing the Conservative Party that it had to support a new form of strategic authority in the capital if was to win the 1997 general election.

Of course, it didn’t. Labour’s Tony Blair won a 179 majority landslide, the largest ever in British political history, with a commitment of his own to deliver for the capital. In 1998, a referendum about creating the new Greater London Authority was held, with all three of the main political parties backing a “yes” vote. The ensuing Greater London Authority Bill went through the legislative process reasonably smoothly the following year despite being the second longest in history, thanks to all parties agreeing with the principle and much of the detail.

And as the Bill made its way through Parliament in the spring of 1999, nearly ten years after I became involved in London politics, I resigned as deputy chief executive of London First and set up London Communications Agency (LCA) in readiness for the arrival of London’s new Mayor and Assembly.

From 2000 to today

I will skip over much of the next 20 years as the real focus of the second half of this article is London today. Suffice to say that the city has done considerably better than it might have hoped – and certainly better than it would have – had we continued without a strategic authority. The first Mayor, Ken Livingstone, set the agenda better than many expected and once the Labour government got over the way he had outmanoeuvred them politically to win the inaugural election in 2000, public sector investment increased.

Our schools improved dramatically. The management of London’s transport systems, which had struggled since 1986, also improved, helped by increased investment and Peter Hendy’s skilful leadership. We saw the delivery of High Speed 1 at St Pancras International. And, of course, in 2012 we hosted the Olympic Games, which not only brought the world to London, but also regenerated a key part of the east of the city around Stratford.

That said, there is still much that should worry us. The cost of housing has become a massive issue, crime and fear of crime is currently on the rise and the terrorist threat has shifted from a domestic one, focused on Northern Ireland, to a global one. Delegation of taxes and powers to the capital has not moved forward as many had hoped, despite the work of the London Finance Commission, led by Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics. Coupled with a decade of austerity since 2010, the financial pressures faced by London’s local government are considerable. And, of course, the impact of Brexit hangs over us all.

If you’re hungry for more on the politics and governance of London in the past two decades, worry not: Centre for London, the capital’s think tank, is carrying out a review of these 20 years in a study supported by LCA and a range of other businesses. Edited by Tony Travers and Jack Brown, it will be published later this year.

From 2020 into the future

Looking ahead, I am going to make one significant assumption about 2020: that Sadiq Khan will win a second term as May. Based on this, the first observation is that for the next four years the national government will be of a different political party to that of the Mayor, and that’s a national government with a comfortable majority, unlike the coalition of 2010-15 and Tory governments of 2015-2019.

The graphic below illustrates how the party-political alignment (or misalignment) between No 10 and City Hall has played out over the last 20 years – and how it might over the next four.

Misalignment national gov


What will this mean for London? The overall impression given by the 2019 Tory manifesto is that we should be concerned. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales each get a section. No great surprise there, maybe – it was the Conservative and Unionist Party manifesto, no English region gets a section, so why should London? But the four substantive references to London were not, on the whole, encouraging.

One related to a memorial to the Windrush generation (page 23), another declared, rather ominously, that “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” (page 26), and a third said other city regions should get funding for their transport “as good as London’s” (page 27). Only the fourth was positive, confirming the extension of contactless pay-as-you-go ticketing to almost 200 stations in the south east, meaning that 50 per cent of all rail journeys and almost all London commuter journeys can be completed using a contactless bank card.

There were twice as many references to “levelling up”, a term I predict we will hear a lot more in 2020 (and I will count them during the chancellor’s budget speech next week!). To take just a few of these as examples:

  • Page 26: Boris Johnson has set out an agenda for levelling up every part of the UK – not just investing in our great towns and cities, as well as rural and coastal areas, but giving them far more control of how that investment is made (it is not clear whether this includes parts of London which are as deprived as other parts of the country)
  • Page 36: “…there is much more to do to level up the skills of the entire nation”.
  • Page 42: “This Government is committed to levelling up all parts of the United Kingdom”.
  • Page 57: “As part of our commitment to making the most of the opportunities of Brexit, and levelling up the nation, we will create up to ten freeports around the UK, benefiting some of our most deprived communities”.

Other issues critical to the capital received a few mentions. Tourism, such a massive industry to London, was mentioned twice, once in relation (negatively) to health tourism and once in relation to Northern Ireland. The arts and culture more generally, enormous drivers of London’s economy, got one paragraph on page 42. Housing was extensively covered – including a promise of a Social Housing White Paper (page 30) – but there was nothing about this being a particularly acute challenge for London, nor any recognition of the vital role that London’s local authorities could and should play.

Transport is another area where the government plans a “revolution”, but clearly not in London. Plugs in the document were reserved for Northern Powerhouse Rail, the West Midland Rail Hub and investments in the South West and East Anglia were plugged, as were stations closed following the Beeching report in the 1960s. Backing for Heathrow’s third runway was heavily conditioned (and may be even more so now after the court ruling last week) and there was no reference to any new public transport projects in the capital, not even the much-touted Crossrail 2.

Where does all this leave those campaigning for London’s interests? Do not despair. Back in the 1990s there was no strong unified voice for London,  whereas today we have a Mayor, London Councils and a more focused, if fragmented, business voice. But fighting London’s corner has to be a re-energised.

Much of this should centre on a campaign around fiscal devolution. Tony Travers’ work for the London Finance Commission merits another re-working, especially given the government’s plans for a White Paper on devolution.

A classic case study in this area is the way policing in London is funded and managed. The Met commissioner reports to both the Mayor and the Home Secretary. Whilst the Mayor can raise taxes through a precept to spend on policing, around 70 per ent of the Met’s funding comes from central government. And the recent, tragic rise in violent crime has exposed that although the Mayor is technically responsible for the Met, he doesn’t have responsibility for such things as youth services, education or sentencing. The recent blog on this by Ben Rogers of Centre for London is very revealing.

We also need to continually remind the government that London contains a third of all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, two thirds of those living in temporary accommodation and some of the sharpest relative poverty in the whole country, after taking housing costs into account. And we still have five of the 25 most deprived local authority areas in the country. Those people cannot be casually sacrificed and are every bit as deserving of public support as those in Workington and Wigan.

So now Sadiq has a big challenge. He has been seen by many as a “war time” Mayor from 2016-2019. Can he be a “peace time” Mayor to 2024? His “London and the UK – a Declaration of Interdependence”, published in August 2019, is a great starting point, and within days of Johnson winning the 2019 election he had distanced himself from Corbyn (he was never that close anyhow). He has started making friendlier overtures for funding for TfL.

But why would this new Tory government, flush from winning 44 seats in the North and Midlands, want to help the London’s Mayor right now, especially if he continues to “blame” government for just about everything in the run up to May’s election? Andy Burnham, Labour’s Mayor in Greater Manchester, has taken a softer tone with the government, recognising that his chances of greater investment partly depends on it.

Note too that there are also May elections across other parts of England, including the West Midlands, where Conservative Mayor Andy Street is fighting hard to hold on. No surprise then that Street was one of a few people to be name-checked in the Tory manifesto, so we can expect at least some funds to be allocated to infrastructure in the West Midlands in the 11 March budget.

It will therefore be fascinating to see what Mayor Khan’s manifesto will have to say – or say in between the lines – on relations with government. Inflammatory language would certainly be a big mistake. It would allow Conservative mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey, who has so far struggled to cut through, to say that if you vote for him, he’s far more likely to get extra funding for the capital. No doubt Rory Stewart will say the same.

What can business do? Twenty-eight years after it was launched, London First has at least one important decision to make. It has to change its name. In 1992 the name was completely right – government had to put “London first”. But today it reinforces much of the negative feeling about London in the rest of the country. And I would go further than a name change. Three times, London First and the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry have considered merging. I was involved in two of those attempts in the late 1990s and early noughties. Now more than ever, London needs a single, powerful campaigning voice for business.

This would come best from a new combined business body, with a new name, a new agenda, a new common cause with Sadiq Khan (or whoever wins in May) and London Councils and a new campaign. The focus must be around the forthcoming comprehensive spending review due later this year and the argument must be made that to help the government “level up” the rest of the UK means maintaining London’s position as the best city in the world in which to do business.

We must not fall back to the 1980s.

Images: Population graph from Trust for London. Misalignment graphic from London Communications Agency. is committed to providing the best possible coverage of London’s politics, development, social issues and culture. It depends on donations from readers. Individual sums or regular monthly contributions are very welcome indeed. Click here to donate via PayPal or contact Thank you.

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