Speaking of London: making the case for the capital in the age of ‘levelling up’

Speaking of London: making the case for the capital in the age of ‘levelling up’

Politicians remain keen to bash the capital, it seems – but anti-London sentiment among those living outside the city could be the “dog that didn’t bark”, to quote the well-known Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of Silver Blaze. That was the message from Centre for London research director Claire Harding at the think tank’s annual London conference last week, reporting back on its latest research on “levelling up” and its implications for the city.

The first part of the research, published in June, had set out the now familiar challenges faced by many Londoners: the highest poverty rates in the UK by many measures, high housing costs, and a continuing squeeze on council and City Hall finances prompted, Harding said, by concern that the “lived experience of low income Londoners was being ignored in the political rhetoric around levelling up”.

And it raised the thorny conundrum London’s advocates have consistently grappled with – “the need to tell our city’s story better” as Harding put it, speaking with a “united voice” and “rejecting the zero sum economic notion that in order for Liverpool to succeed, for example, Lewisham has to do badly”.

The second part of the research, due to be published shortly, has looked in more detail at the relationships between London and the rest of the UK: its vital net contribution to the Treasury and social and cultural contributions to the life of the country, along with that question of “how we speak about shared challenges and opportunities”.

As part of the research, the centre staged five focus groups this summer probing perceptions of London, in the North of England, the South/Midlands and in inner and outer London – with some perhaps surprising results, Harding said.

“We were really struck by how similar the views were of people who live in London and those who live in other parts of the country,” Harding revealed. Both groups expressed positive opinions about the city’s diversity, its employment, culture and leisure opportunities and its status internationally, as well as negative views about crowds, high costs and pollution.

Non-Londoners as well as Londoners were both well aware of poverty in the capital too. “Nobody thought that the city streets were paved with gold and that everyone was wealthy,” Harding added.

Most unexpected, Harding said, comparing her findings with her previous research a decade ago, “we really didn’t find much anti-London sentiment. That was the dog that didn’t bark. Politicians like to use this divisive rhetoric about our city, but it seems the public aren’t really buying it.”

But if that finding was an indication of some softening of anti-London attitudes, potentially making it a bit easier for London’s advocates to make the case for the capital, there were some challenging findings too, particularly for those arguing, as Sadiq Khan and indeed minister for London Paul Scully did at the conference, that “London is the engine that powers the UK”.

“People didn’t really buy the argument either that London’s success is central to the success of the rest of the UK, and they didn’t buy the ‘global city’ argument,” Harding said. “That’s still a challenge for London’s advocates. Those of us who do buy that argument need to be communicating it a lot better.”

Effective approaches, the focus group report suggests, include highlighting London’s diversity, its cultural offer and its international status, and putting less emphasis on its tax or spending contribution and the role of its political and financial institutions.

Other suggestions include using stories rather than statistics to talk about poverty and need, highlighting shared values and concerns and acknowledging that “London isn’t perfect”, and encouraging more domestic tourism. “People who lived outside London were more positive about London if they visit, and some were pleasantly surprised by what they found,” Harding said.

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