London needs a new story for the levelling up era
This article originally appeared in the Local Government Chronicle.
The capital should be at the heart of the debate about what it means for a local economy to be successful.
February’s levelling up white paper represented a long-overdue admission from the government that our economic model does not work for the majority of our country. Unfortunately, this important recognition does not seem to have translated into a prescription that reflects the scale of change that needs to take place. The government’s remedy, sadly, is for more of the same: ‘growing the pie, everywhere, for everyone’.
“On conventional measures of ‘economic success’, London could be understood as doing well”
As London has a pretty large slice of that pie, it could be assumed that, to deliver on levelling up, the government is seeking to mirror the regions to the capital’s success. On conventional measures of ‘economic success’, London could be understood as doing well.
The city has a plethora of world-leading industries – finance, technology, media, entertainment and publishing to name but a few. It boasts a soft power that is the envy of many other global cities, and is a tourist hotspot for both national and international visitors. This cultural, economic and political weight should not be dismissed – London is a fantastic global city that under many indices of success punches far above its relative size.
But what of those indices? It is notable that they are weighted towards GVA and overly favour growth as an economic determinant of success. Increasingly, economists of all political stripes are recognising that growth is not an end in itself; what grows, why it grows and who benefits from that growth paint a more accurate picture of the quality of life. Under this level of scrutiny, a more nuanced picture emerges of a ‘London model’, which is not a universal success story.
“27% of all Londoners live in poverty – the highest of any UK region”
Just under four in 10 of London’s children live in poverty – the highest rate of any English region – and the city has the second highest regional unemployment rate in the country. 27% of all Londoners live in poverty – the highest of any UK region. While Londoners’ median income is the highest in the UK, once housing costs are accounted for this barely hovers above the national average. London was harder hit by the pandemic too; Universal Credit claimants increased over the national average, alongside furlough and unemployment rates.
These two tales of London, as both fantastically successful and acutely unequal, must be reconciled if we are to develop the UK’s capital to create an economy that is fit for the 21st century.
Politically, the local election results have consolidated London’s position between a rock and a hard place, at risk of being ignored by Whitehall. The elections increased Labour’s power in London, while nationally, the Conservatives boast a large majority, despite having very little focus on the capital. There is a danger, then, that – if the Conservatives view London as a largely lost cause, while Labour takes the city for granted – both of their focus may well be elsewhere in the country by the time of the next election.
“there is a powerful, human, story to be told about how the opportunities of a place like London do not absent its residents from challenges”
To counter the risk of political deprioritisation, we urgently need to tell a new story for London. This is not a question of choosing one ‘version’ of London over the other. There is a powerful, human, story to be told about how the opportunities of a place like London do not absent its residents from challenges as extensive as elsewhere, but how with the proper stewardship the opportunities of a high growth city can be translated into better lives for those who need it most.
There are lessons to be learned here, not just for London, but for all of the UK’s places.
Integral to this will be a reaffirmation of why London’s success matters to the rest of the country. Public perceptions of London pose a significant challenge in this regard – as polling from Centre for London has shown. Not least amongst these challenges is the conflation of London with Westminster in the eyes of the public: the power held in one borough has become a proxy for the city as a whole and, with it, an intensification of an “us and them” narrative that does a massive disservice to the complexity of London’s economic picture.
“the closeness of wealth and poverty in London is among the starkest in Western Europe”
Geographical proximity as an indicator of opportunity and economic development must be challenged. The closeness of wealth and poverty in London is among the starkest in Western Europe, and clearly highlights the case for a redefinition of economic success.
London needs to ask, how do we retain what is loved about our city whilst creating good jobs, education, health systems and housing for all? How do we close the gap between Google’s headquarters in Kings Cross and underperforming primary schools in Camden? How do we tell the story of why having Google here is good for the rest of the country?
These are not easy questions to answer, and will require co-ordinated activity across the realms of politics, culture, media and civil society. Inequalities and challenges exist throughout our country but we have more in common than what divides us. Levelling up has provided a new spotlight on what it means for a local economy to be successful – a questioning of what success looks like is an integral part of this discussion and London should be at the heart of that debate.