“It’s right to say that London is an economic powerhouse,” said the MP for Sutton & Cheam, who took on his ministerial brief in February. He told the conference session on the hard-hit capital’s economic recovery that, “Levelling up around the country is overdue and it’s important we do it, but we need to make the case for London.”
The minister’s comments, on the eve of the second national lockdown, came in the wake of new City Hall analysis estimating a £10.9 billion shortfall in tourist spending in the city’s Square Mile and West End Central Activities Zone compared to pre-Covid forecasts, and an almost £2 billion reduction in commuter spending in the area.
London is the “beating heart of the UK economy, generating almost a quarter of national GDP” – an “uncomfortable truth” that government had to face – central London Business Improvement Districts chief Ruth Duston told the conference. “If London’s businesses are supported, we will not only survive but thrive and lead the nation’s recovery.”
The central activities zone is a “powerhouse” for the rest of London as well, added Scully, repeating his warning in a recent Commons debate that London risks becoming a hollowed out “Gotham City”.
“What do I mean about Gotham City?” he said in that debate. “We run the risk of hollowing out the West End if we do not get the recovery right. If we have only the ultra-rich and the people on low incomes who service the city, but not the people in the middle who provide so much of the community and spend, London will not be the same as it was before.”
Current discussion of “15-minute cities”, where residents’ needs, including jobs, are met within a short walk or bike ride from their home, should not ignore the fact that “one of the great reasons for living in and around London is that we have one of the greatest world cities on our doorstep”, and that working from home is more like “living at work” for many, he added.
For Clare Coghill, leader of Waltham Forest Council and executive member for skills and employment at the boroughs’ London Councils network, the Inner-Outer London dichotomy is becoming increasingly “false and unhelpful.”
“We need to take this extraordinary opportunity to commit the whole of our city to getting our economy back on its feet,” she said, adding that boroughs like Waltham Forest have “space, capacity, transport networks”, as well as resources such as the Walthamstow wetlands, with the same conservation status as the Nile or the Amazon, which could benefit the whole metropolis.
Coghill called for a new focus on education and training as “fundamental to the success not just of London but the country”. Her one immediate wish, she said, would be “time-limited free training for everyone out of work”.
The way forward? A hint from Scully of a review of the London Plan, still awaiting ministerial sign-off almost a year after Mayor Khan’s final draft was submitted. “We’ve got to be nimble and responsive in planning,” the minister said. Coghill added: “If the world changes it would be foolish not to look again.”
Scully also advocated an overall a focus on all levels of government working together. “We need to take dogmatic politics out of it and get on with finding solutions, with a single coherent message,” he said.
Watch the whole conference session here.
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