Coronavirus has hit the capital hard, causing the deaths of more than 7,000 Londoners and devastating the economy of Central London in particular. But the pandemic is also shining a light on challenges which were already threatening London’s place at the top of the world’s leading cities league table.
That’s the message from the first report from the Centre for London think tank’s wide-ranging London Futures research programme, billed as a “once in a generation” strategic review aiming to set out a shared vision for the city to 2050 and beyond.
The report, entitled London at a Crossroads, charts the capital’s 30-year success story – inner city regeneration, investment in transport, London government restored, the population growing and the economy booming as the city escaped from the doldrums of the 1980s to secure its ranking as one of half a dozen “world” cities.
And it confirms the capital’s status as the United Kingdom’s powerhouse as well as a global force, home to 14% of the UK’s population but accounting for a quarter of the country’s economic output, bouncing back from the 2008 financial crisis and cementing its place as a tech hub as well as a centre for culture and creative industries and a top destination for international tourism.
But even before the Covid-19 pandemic began to change city life, London’s global standing had been faltering, “with doubts about its future business environment, affordability, safety and progress on congestion and air quality,” Centre for London strategic projects director Rob Whitehead said at today’s online launch for the report.
A cocktail of stalled productivity, low wages, housing shortages and high rents was putting pressure on the capital, leaving more Londoners living in poverty than in any other part of the UK, while the city was also slipping down the league on “liveability” measures including safety, congestion and pollution.
“Residents and businesses had begun to reconsider what they need from cities; increasingly valuing those that are green, inclusive and resilient,” the Centre says. Wider issues as well, including new sources of economic competition, growing nationalism and populism, a fall-off in international trade, increasing hostility to the capital from elsewhere in the UK, and the impact of Brexit, were piling on the pressure.
The conclusion, according to Whitehead: “London is vulnerable. Now is the time to shape a new vision for London’s future and a deliver a new narrative for the city’s position in the UK and the world.”
To kick off the debate, and reflecting competing priorities and possible trade-offs as London contemplates the challenges of economic recovery, health, tackling inequality and climate change, the report offers five future scenarios, from the “15-minute city” Parisian model to fully-devolved self-government, a “MegaCapital” future, a model prioritising tackling inequality, and a “safety first” London putting resilience ahead of growth.
Speaking at the report launch, City Corporation chief Catherine McGuinness expressed confidence in the capital’s long-term future, with strengths in technology and in addressing climate change in particular. “I am very confident we will remain a leading global city,” she said.
But short-term it remains a “tale of two cities”, she said, with big business coping but small business struggling. “You can’t hibernate your economy,” she said. “We need to find ways to live with this virus because it’s not going to go away.”
Her concerns were echoed by Cities of London and Westminster MP Nickie Aiken, previously leader of Westminster Council. With Central London footfall down 60%, businesses trading at 20% of last year’s levels and hotel occupancy down to 10%, the West End was facing a “catastrophic crisis”, she said, with targeted support essential.
The pandemic has nevertheless enabled a period of “self-refection on value, and quality of life,” said Lambeth Council leader Jack Hopkins, and a time to ask “almost existential questions about the kind of city we want to be,” added Centre for London director Ben Rogers.
The second phase of the Centre’s London Futures programme, including further research and polling, is also calling directly for views from individuals and organisations across the capital. Details on how to get involved here.
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