Tony Travers: London at a crossroads?

Tony Travers: London at a crossroads?

This article was delivered on 1 March 2023 in the form of a lecture by Professor Travers for the King’s College Strand Group at Bush House, Aldwych, introduced by Jack Brown.

The story of London’s 2000-year history is well documented in hundreds of books on the subject. From the arrival of the Romans to the arrival of Artificial Intelligence, the city has grown from Londinium via Lundenwic to London. A small settlement centred on Cornhill has expanded to a 600 square mile “Greater” London of nine million. The even-wider London region, 15,000 square miles, is today home to about 24 million people and is one of the four largest city regional economies in the world.

There have been good times and bad times, of course.  I want briefly to explore some of the periods and events when people would have wondered about the city’s capacity to survive and to thrive. Going as far back as the end of Roman London in 410, their departure led to almost 200 years of abandonment, with the Saxons then locating their city of Lundenwic a mile to the east of Londinium, close to Aldwych then, later, moved back to the safety of the Roman wall.

The name Aldwych itself is an Old English reminder of this history. During the first half of the 11th Century, Saxon King Edward the Confessor established his base up-river from Lundenwic, at today’s Westminster, thus locating political and religious power outside London. This separation between “political” Westminster and “commercial” London is still with us today and has affected many aspects of the city’s evolution ever since.

King William of Normandy invaded England and, indeed, London in 1066. However, he created a dynamic fusion of Saxon and Norman cultures and, among other things, granted the City of London chartered autonomy in exchange for tax income. According to Simon Jenkins, at this point London became “a state within a state”. I will return to this observation later, but this – the granting of a charter – was clearly a ‘crossroads’ moment for the city and its people.

Caroline Barron observed in her book London in the Later Middle Ages that London’s fortunes varied because of poverty, plague and the threat of insurrection:

“In the sixteenth century London faced massive problems caused by rapid population growth, poverty, shortage of work, endemic plague, threatened famine, and religious controversy. In these circumstances, and with an eye to urban disorder in continental towns, the Tudor monarchs and their counsellors feared the worst. But, to the surprise of all, stability was maintained. There were many reasons for this but, in part, it was due to the maturity of those who governed the city and who had come to realise that to govern London was a responsibility and a duty, and not simply a golden opportunity for personal gain”.

Perhaps the worst-ever threat to London was the twinning of the Great Plague in 1665-66 and the Great Fire of 1666. The outbreak of plague was the worst since 1348, with over 7,000 Londoners dying per week at its peak. The King left for the safety of Hampton Court. Parliament and the courts moved to Oxford. Thousands of the city’s better-off inhabitants fled to their country homes. The 1666 Great Fire destroyed a significant proportion of the city’s housing and businesses, most churches (including St Paul’s Cathedral) and many livery halls. The need to respond to the twin disasters of plague and fire most definitely left London “at a crossroads”.

According to Peter Ackroyd, the impact on London was profound:

“[M]any of those who had lived in the city before the Fire did not return to the scene of devastation. Some migrated to the country districts, others travelled to the United States…But once the rebuilding of the city began, thousands of new people were drawn into its orbit…hundreds of hawkers and traders moved into the city which had lost half of its markets and most of its shops. And there, of course, came the builders who took advantage of the situation to run up whole streets of houses”.

Most famously, Charles II commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to design and construct dozens of new churches and today’s St Paul’s Cathedral. The city recovered, prospered and sprawled out into the fields of Covent Garden, St Giles and, eventually, distant Marylebone. By the 19th Century, pollution generated by coal burning and noxious industries increased as London grew rapidly to become “the biggest city the world had ever known”. The city’s notoriously fragmented government made it difficult to build clean water supplies or sewers, making cholera a regular visitor.

Parliament eventually imposed the Metropolitan Board of Works and then the London County Council to improve the capital’s infrastructure. It took social reformers such as Henry Mayhew, the Earl of Shaftesbury and Charles Dickens to highlight the dismal condition of the poor in London and thus to promote legislation to improve their conditions. Tower Hamlets, which is today the city’s most densely populated borough, with 320,000 people, had a population of 600,000 at the beginning of the 20th century, many living in indescribable squalor.

The 20th Century brought a major outbreak of influenza in 1918, then the Blitz during World War II. Between 1918 and 1939, it is important to note not only that London reached a population of 8.6 million, but that London Transport was created by Lord Ashfield and Frank Pick to create the world’s exemplar public transport system. Housing was plentiful and cheap. A “Green Belt” was imposed at the end of the 1930s to stop endless sprawl. Without it, London and Birmingham would presumably by now have merged in the way Tokyo and Yokohama have.

The destruction wrought by the Blitz created the need for housing and commercial property construction parallel with what happened after the Great Fire. But despite this post-war reconstruction, London then suffered three decades of economic and population decline. Though it may not have been entirely apparent at the time, London in 1945 was “at a crossroads”.

Global economic change led to major decline in London’s manufacturing industry, the Docks (and population) during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, made worse by curious policies such as George Brown’s 1960s “office ban” in central London. By 1977, urbanist Sir Peter Hall was able to write in his preface for a book ominously entitled London – The Heartless City:

 “[This] is not a comfortable book to read.  Anyone expecting uplift or optimism should stop here…It shows London as it is, at the beginning of the last quarter of the twentieth century.  It depicts a city that, contrary to the popular vision of many, is actually in a state of decline. It chronicles a sad story of muddle and indecision and delay on the part of those responsible for London’s government. It suggests strongly that many key policies, still in operation, may be positively perverse in that they are doing London, and Londoners, actual injury”.

This was a bleak analysis by any standards. The abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986 coincided with the city’s population reaching a post-war low of 6.6 million and with every expectation it would decline further. Deindustrialisation had created mile upon mile of derelict land, notably where the world’s largest docks had been. There appeared to be no crossroads, simply a road heading downwards to oblivion.

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Population unexpectedly started to grow after the mid-1980s, and by 2000 its growth was accelerating so that 15 or so years on from the city’s post-war nadir, London Docklands was towering upwards, the City of London had reversed its anti-development policy, the DLR and the Jubilee Line extension had opened up inner east London, and Crossrail was being planned. Millennium-themed projects had been completed at Tate Modern, the British Museum, North Greenwich (The Dome) and the Millennium Bridge. In 2000, London’s first directly elected Mayor took office and, as if by a miracle, the population started to rise quickly upwards again.

Subsequently, St Pancras and King’s Cross have been spectacularly regenerated, Shoreditch, Hackney, inner east London and inner south east London have become expensively “cool”. Walthamstow is now fashionable. Battersea and Nine Elms have sprouted a forest of towers, while Battersea Power Station was finally rebuilt with its own spur onto the Underground. The 2012 Olympics rapidly transformed Stratford and Hackney Wick and are still doing so.

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Elsewhere, Paddington, Surrey Quays, North Acton, Wembley, Harrow town centre, Colindale, Lewisham town centre, Ilford, Southall, Hayes & Harlington, Barking town centre, Barking Riverside, Sutton town centre, Ponders End and, more complicatedly, Croydon have seen major redevelopments, often creating their own mini-clusters of “downtown” towers. The optimistically named Thameslink 2000 project was eventually completed in 2020. Last year, the Elizabeth Line opened to huge acclaim. It is already the most heavily used railway in the country. Where Thameslink, the Elizabeth Line and three Tube lines meet at Farringdon in surely London’s equivalent of Paris’s remarkable rail interchange at Chatelet-Les Halles.

So, London moved from, in Peter Hall’s words, “a city that…is actually in a state of decline” in 1977 to what is often portrayed as the world’s leading “Global City” by the early to mid-2000s: in effect from Ken Loach’s world to Richard Curtis’s in one relatively short step.

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No one has researched – even if it were possible – precisely why this happened. Elements in the explanation probably include the progressive social changes made by the Labour government of the late-1960s, Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of the economy and its “Big Bang” liberation of the financial services industry in the 1980s, the John Major government’s decisions about Millennium projects, new transport, cultural and public realm investments in London during the early 1990s, and the post-1997 Labour government’s spending on the Underground, commuter railways and stations, the 2012 Olympics and the creation of the Greater London Authority, particularly the office of Mayor. The London Planning Advisory Committee’s study London: World City, published as long ago as 1991, was a key encapsulation of a major change of direction and a new ambition for the city.

London’s massive inheritance of both “soft” and “hard” attributes, notably the scale of its arts, creative and cultural institutions, its universities, its legal system, its position as a media hub, its architecture, its history, its airport system, its retail and tourism industries, its incredibly extensive public transport system  and, of course, its language, together provided a globally powerful “pull factor” for the footloose people and investment, which together now determine how the global economy now develops. American academics Richard Florida and Ed Glaeser have written extensively about the “eco-system” of inherited benefits which cities such as London, New York and Paris combine, giving them a fortuitous attractiveness (not to say permanence) as compared to smaller and/or newer cities.

To summarise where we have got to so far, I have made the case that London has long been subject to huge setbacks – and even apparent catastrophes – and yet has survived and continued to grow, both economically and in terms of its population. I now want to look ahead at what may well be seen as another “crossroads”.

Recent turbulence

London, in common with the rest of the UK, has experienced four “once in a lifetime” shocks within 15 years. The 2008 banking/finance crisis, the 2016 Brexit vote and its consequences, the 2020-22 Covid-19 pandemic and Vladimir Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine all created what are optimistically called “economic headwinds” for London and for the country as a whole. Of course, three of the four shocks affected most cities and countries in the world, while Brexit has had consequences for the EU27 as well as for Britain.

The 2008 banking crisis was widely expected to cause harm to London’s economy, largely because financial and business services were perceived to be such a major part of its growth and productivity. In the event, government bailouts largely protected the banking sector, though it is apparent that both London and the UK’s economic growth and productivity have been reduced by the shock of 2008-09.

Brexit is “work in progress”. Indeed, it looks as if it will be so for decades to come. To use a helpful cliché, it is a “process, not an event”. The number of financial services jobs relocated to the EU has been lower than initially predicted, though there may be something of a “slow puncture” effect which means we do not yet know how the City and its industries will eventually be affected. It is also clear that insofar as well-paid jobs and GDP have been moved to other EU cities, they have done so in a fragmented way.

The City of London remains the largest financial centre in Europe. Having said this, the government has been so preoccupied since 2016 that few of the imagined “Brexit freedoms” have been delivered, though the recent Windsor Framework may be the start of a re-setting of UK-EU relations. Evidence from official statisticians points to the real possibility that other parts of the country, particularly those where manufacturing, agriculture and fisheries are a bigger share of the local economy, may be suffering greater Brexit-induced economic impacts than London, which continues to record the highest regional growth in the country.

A second-order consequence of Brexit was the government’s “levelling up” policy. The vote for Brexit was interpreted, at least in part, as a signal from parts of the UK with lower GDP per head and where people were deemed to have been “left behind” that they resented London’s success and affluence. However energetically ministers attempted to reassure London politicians that “levelling up” was not an anti-London policy, there were plenty of signals that that was precisely what it was.

Decisions effectively to kill-off proposals for Crossrail 2, explicit Arts Council policies to reduce funding in London (notably the totemic English National Opera decision), and pots of cash such as the Towns Fund where London councils were not allowed to bid for made it clear that “levelling up” could, at least in some circumstances mean levelling down. However, the policy has been erratic in its implementation, and it is unlikely that initiatives adopted thus far will be sufficient to achieve a longer-term improvement in the life-chances and productivity of people and places deemed to have been “left behind”. The deindustrialisation which led to the (unarguable) problems facing many smaller towns in the Midlands and North of England would take a generation of consensus policy to solve, not a four-year parliament.

Covid-19 affected (and is still affecting) central London more than any other part of the country. Lockdowns reduced Tube traffic by 95 per cent early in the pandemic and it has still not fully recovered. A steep decline in commuting and business travel more generally has posed questions about the future of London’s Central Activities Zone, as well as leaving Transport for London’s finances in a parlous condition. There has been much debate – and many, many, consultancy reports – about the longer-term impact of the pandemic on London and other cities’ centres, but it increasingly looks as if the dynamic effects of being at the centre of a city region of 24 million people are, step-by-step, taking the city’s central area back towards its previously hyper-productive position.

Mr Putin’s adventurism will have a short-term effect on the UK and London economy, as it will affect other European countries and cities. In some ways, and notwithstanding last autumn’s governmental meltdown, London still looks a relatively safe haven for capital and investment, given its semi-detached position on the far west of Europe.

The city’s government

Against the backdrop of the past 14 years, it is easy to argue that London is at one of the periodic crossroads referred to in the title of this lecture. The city’s government at all three levels have the power to make decisions shaping the city’s future. Central government controls much of the investment the city needs and there is a risk that the “levelling up” policy starves London of the new infrastructure it needs. There is also a threat to the quality of maintenance of railways, social housing and the NHS estate. Whitehall has recently increasingly intervened in planning and transport governance, not always in a constructive way.

The Greater London Authority – which has now outlived the lifespan of the Greater London Council by two years – needs additional devolved powers. Indeed, all city regional governments in England require substantive further devolution. Mayors Andy Street and Andy Burnham, Andy Haldane (Chair of the Levelling Up Advisory Council), academics such as Professor Paul Collier and both Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan as Mayors of London have strongly argued for greater devolution in hyper-centralised England. With more powers should come a re-balancing of powers between the Mayor and Assembly: the Mayor would gain more executive responsibility, while the Assembly’s quasi-legislative role would then need enhancing.

Remarkably, the London boroughs are now 58 years old and the City of London nearly 1000. The latter anniversary will occur, shortly, in 2067, if King William’s charter is to be a guide. The current balance of power between London councils and the Mayor is an almost accidental creation. London’s government is a “bottom heavy two-tier system” where neighbourhood and metropolitan interests are negotiated and mediated. The current struggle over the extension of the ULEZ is a case in point.

There are, from time to time, suggestions that 33 councils is too large a number. But, given that the borough with the smallest population, Kensington & Chelsea, has a population similar to Middlesbrough and that several of the larger ones including Croydon and Barnet each have a larger population than Leicester, these are already big cities in their own right. Moreover, reorganisation is almost always a way of giving the impression a policy problem is being solved when generally there is no evidence of a link between reorganisation and solving whatever the problem is.

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As mentioned above, London sits within a “city region” of about 24 million people, consisting of London itself (nine million), the South East (9.3 million) and the East of England (6.3 million). Even just beyond this area lie major towns such as Bournemouth and Swindon which are within London’s economic orbit. Some of the furthest-flung places in this area are King’s Lynn, Banbury and, indeed, Bournemouth, which is actually in the South West region.

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These towns are around an hour and a half from central London. Birmingham is currently an hour and 19 minutes from Euston, similar to the Central Line journey from Gants Hill to West Ruislip within Greater London. The South East rail map tells us much about the convergence of railways, and thus people, into central London.

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London’s population has increased from 8.6 million in 1939 to about 9.0 million today, having dropped to 6.6 million in 1985, then increased quickly between 2000 and 2020. The UK grew from 47 to 67 million in this time. Looking at the shorter period since the early 1960s, the “wider South East,” has grown from a population of about 17.6 million to 24.4 million between 1961 and 2020. The GDP of this city region will be about £1.2 trillion in 2023-24, just over 47 per cent of the UK total. That is almost half of the country’s GDP in 16 per cent of its area. It is the same GDP as Spain’s, but within three per cent of the land mass.

Note that the increase in population in the wider South East between 1961 and 2020 is almost six million. It is easy to see how professional planners have long hoped for some form of governance for this inexorably growing sphere of London.

Despite the Green Belt, the city’s region is growing fast. Housebuilding has occurred on the edges of many towns in the South East and East regions, creating new sprawl, not on the immediate edge of London, but mostly outside the Green Belt. Local authorities just outside the London boundary are growing faster than most just inside it, and areas further out within the city region are growing faster still. “London”, always an amorphous concept, is growing out. Something very similar can be seen in the New York and Paris regions, with far greater growth since 1945 in outer parts of the city region than within the core city itself.

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This relentless growth surely goes some way to explain London’s capacity to change and regenerate. Peter Hall wrote extensively about this phenomenon. There is, in effect, a dynamo effect, attracting in new talent, investment and business to the wider South East, thus allowing London and its interconnected region to be globally attractive by facilitating a “division of labour” (but not only labour) between very different, closely-located, places.

Optimism or pessimism looking ahead?

The history and trends briefly outlined above describe a longer-term resilience which has allowed London to become a global mega-city. It has happened, to recall the title of Michael Hebbert’s excellent book about the city, “more by fortune than design”. The fact London had been allowed to grow to such a large size before a Green Belt was imposed has left a large area to develop and redevelop. Contemporary anti-sprawl (and pro-density) policy means the arguments for further population growth within the existing boundaries of London could take the population up well above ten million. Ten and a half million people in Greater London would take it to the density of contemporary Ealing, while at the densities of Islington and Tower Hamlets it would reach a population of 23-24 million.

Moreover, London’s population is also diverse in multi-dimensional ways. Its population is now significantly more overseas-born than New York City (43 per cent compared to 36 per cent) and, as a mixture of communities, neighbourhoods and cultures, has few parallels anywhere. The resilience, scale, diversity and economic power of London and the wider south east mean there are good grounds for optimism in the medium term. Most of the city’s advantages remain in place. The wider literature about global cities confirms their likely continued growth and success.

It would be naïve to ignore the impacts of Brexit in its current, incomplete, form. But Brexit will eventually be sorted out – what we do not yet know is how long this will take. Similarly, the fall-out from the pandemic and the impact of working from home on the city centre’s remarkable ecosystem has yet to be fully understood. The impact on productivity is unlikely to be helpful. Research has suggested London may be losing out to Paris in terms of inward investment. Again, it may also take several years to understand the impacts fully. More positively, it is evident that investment in tech industries, property and medical research remain far higher than into other European cities. International tourism is recovering.

But nothing can be taken for granted. Government at the borough, city-wide and national level have the capacity to direct this future and to deliver policy outcomes. Economic growth, consistent investment, the quality of the environment and good government would all contribute to the city’s future. What kinds of policy changes might be required to achieve success?  Action is needed in several spheres:

  • Devolution of power to the GLA and the boroughs. Devolution in England has been a convoluted and half-hearted policy. London, having been given an initial and successful version of English devolution, has more recently been subjected to (at least some) retreat and more intervention by central government. Ministers now routinely over-ride the boroughs and/or the mayor on planning decisions, even to the point of stopping new housing being built on a station car park. The pandemic was used to justify interventions in London’s transport of a kind not visited on the national railway, despite the latter being a far worse performer than the Tube and Overground.  The time has come to deliver a far greater degree of devolution to both City Hall and town halls.
  • Secure and predictable long-term tax sources to underpin investment. The London Finance Commission, which reported 10 years ago, advocated giving London control over the full range of property taxes, plus the possibility of a tourist tax and other smaller revenues. Other city regions could benefit similarly and are arguing along these lines themselves.
  • Continued investment in public transport, housing and the NHS estate, including the transfer of all commuter railways to TfL control. The debate about ‘levelling up’ has left ministers feeling they should not be seen to invest in London. Such a policy would be inequitable and would reduce the Treasury’s tax take.  There are good reasons for investing in London’s physical capital.
  • Restore the bus service. The city’s bus ridership numbers have been in decline since well before the pandemic, partly because of central government policy towards TfL’s finances, but also because the chaos of under-managed roadworks have significantly reduced speeds in many parts of the city to a crawl.
  • An increase in housebuilding. The recent steep rise in private rents, and also of the large number of people stuck in ‘temporary accommodation’, made more challenging still by the government’s use of local hotels and hostels to house asylum seekers for long periods, make it axiomatic there should be a major uptick in private and public house-building. Moreover, ways will need to be found to ensure that new social housing can be provided with the on-going maintenance resources to sustain it to a high quality.
  • Radical improvements to ‘clean and safe’ policies to ensure all Londoners feel safe and proud of their neighbourhoods. Both the Labour and Conservative parties have recently turned their attention to ‘anti-social behaviour’. After 13 years of ‘austerity’, many streets and neighbourhoods are blighted by poor levels of basic service provision, where it appears the State is in retreat.
  • A rational migration policy. London (and, indeed, national) businesses need a migration policy that allows the city to expand and which the public supports. National government has thus far found in impossible to produce such a policy.
  • Better accountability for the Metropolitan Police. The current arrangements for governing London’s police are a muddle. The Metropolitan Police have both London and national responsibilities, including diplomatic and counter-terrorism duties. The Home Secretary (in the name of the Monarch) appoints the Commissioner (albeit having consulted the mayor), while the Mayor determines budgets and non-operational policy. The Commissioner alone determines operational policy. No wonder everyone can blame everyone else when things go wrong.
  • Central London. The complexity of boundaries and institutional control create a challenge for the central boroughs, City Hall, TfL, the Met (and the two other police forces), BIDs and other institutions such as the Royal Parks to achieve the powerful and effective interventions necessary to maintain and develop the globally recognised central area. Policy towards issues such as tall buildings, utilities, open spaces and major events could be made more consistent and produce better outcomes for businesses and local residents. While bodies such as Central London Forward do great work, the pandemic has posed major questions about the future of major city centres. The boroughs and the mayor probably need to address the future of the central activities zone in a more effective way.
  • Improve the understanding of London within the UK. Attitudes to London are often badly out of line with reality. London has among the worst concentrations of deprivation in the UK. The confusion of ‘London’ as a synonym for the failures of central government with ‘London’ as a place of residence and work is seriously problematic.

Others would suggest different policy priorities, but these are intended to be a mixture of the more ‘constitutional’/longer-term along with more immediate needs for policy action. Some of them require central government action, others more local attention. Further possible topics for attention include post-school non-university education, under-fives provision, amending the planning system to help deliver net zero policies, and a shift of resources from the NHS to public health.

London is unique, dynamic, and resilient. By scale, perception and difference, it is a “state within a state”.  It is easy for those who live and work in the city to take it for granted. People outside may actively be suspicious of it and its people. When considering the future it is necessary to avoid both complacency and excessive pessimism. “Boosterism” and “declinism” co-exist closely in contemporary Britain.   The late Vivienne Westwood said “There’s nowhere else like London. Nothing at all, anywhere”. This is surely true.

The key question, as London faces another “crossroads” moment, is how to advance the city sensitively, allowing continued economic dynamism allied to improving social outcomes for citizens. Politicians who can do that will be doing the right thing for their own chances, but also the right thing for London.

Tony Travers is Visiting Professor in the London School of Economics Department of Government and Director of LSE London.

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