Is London too much? Four centuries of debate

King James I lamented in the early seventeenth century: “soon London will be all England”. Then, as now, London’s population growth was both driven by and drove the capital’s economic prosperity. Before the end of the century, arguments would appear for what we would now call the ‘re-balancing’ of the country’s economy and population : 

“Now as to the Grandour of London. Would not England be easier and perhaps stronger if these vitals were more equally dispersed? Is there not a Tumour in that place, and too much matter for mutiny and Terrour for the Government  if it should Burst? Is there not too much of our Capital in one stake, liable to the Ravage of Plague and fire?…Will not the resort of the Wealthy and emulation to Luxury melt down the order of Superiors among and bring all towards Levelling and Republican?”

This was written by Robert Southwell to Sir William Petty in 1686, one of the many  fascinating extracts and fragments of how contemporary observers saw the coming of the Maxine age in Humphrey Jennings’ marvellous ‘Pandemonium’. Southwell’s argument across four centuries sounds some very contemporary concerns: regional inequalities; threats to resilience, both natural and man-made; conspicuous consumption by the ‘1%’.

Moreover, as the historian Richard Olson points out,  Southwell was responding to an essay by Petty in which he argued that by 1800, London’s population would rise to 5 million, exceeding that of the rest of England.

Hence, both London’s pre-eminence, and the debate on whether this is beneficial or the opposite, has  persisted for four centuries. That suggests to me that the issue will not be resolved any time soon. As a policy-maker, the more salient issue for me is how to craft a set of national policies which both support London’s growth and dynamism, and also use this asset to the benefit of the whole of the UK. 


Cycle power

Films such as ‘The theory of everything” and TV series such as ‘Grantchester’ imply that Cambridge is cycle heaven. And indeed, there are a lot of people on bikes; Cambridge has I believe the highest proportion of journeys to work on two wheels. But the infrastructure and traffic management lags the reality by a long way. While cycling across Parkers Piece or Midsummer Common is undoubtedly a joy, most city cycling in Cambridge involves the familiar mix of potholes, disappearing cycle lanes and an apparently mystical belief in the efficacy of faded white lines on Tarmac to provide a cycle-friendly city.

This may be now changing. The’DNA cycle path’ South from Addenbrookes offers great views as well as a path surface whose colours reference the four nucleotides of the BRCA2 gene, and the cycle way alongside the guided busway is another fast convenient route into and out of the city. And in the last few weeks work has begun on a segregated cycle lane along Hills Road. It’s only about a mile and will terminate at the Hills Road bridge – but it’s a start.

Promoting cycling and walking is more than a transport policy; it is a way in which cities can say something about what sort of place they are, and what sort of place they want to be. These are not (just) quality of life issues; for cities like Cambridge (and London) their economic futures will depend on their ability to attract and retain ideas, investment- and people

What do we want? City Devolution! When do we want it? Err…soonish

Whitehall, according to today’s FT editorial, should set the UK’s cities free. Who could disagree? According to the FT, it’s hard to find a British politician who does: “Both the government and the Labour party think devolving more powers over planning, infrastructure and skills could boost growth. A Conservative grandee, Lord Heseltine, published a review for the coalition in 2012 that proposed just this, setting aside a large pot of money for which local authorities could bid. The Labour party parried with a growth review of its own, led by Lord Adonis, whose initial findings were this week unveiled by Ed Miliband. These, too, call for more decisions to be taken locally.” The FT wants to go further, branding current initiatives as “timid stuff”. Even acknowledging as the FT leader writer does, that the case for devolution to cities generating faster growth is unproven, it thinks it worth a try. Britain’s large cities need to be cut free from central government and given the powers to plan, fund and deliver the transport, housing and skills they require to thrive.Such ideas trouble the Treasury, which worries that local politicians are less skilled at allocating funding than Whitehall mandarins. These fears are misplaced. It is hard to make the case that civil servants in London know better.” 

More resource implies more accountability, and the FT is in favour of more directly-elected Mayors for the big cities. 

But if almost no-one disagrees, why are we still living in one of the most centralized countries in the world? Ministers in both the last New Labour government and in the present Coalition government have talked up the role of the next tier of UK cities outside London, either referring back to the Victorian heyday of muscular and confident municipalism, or looking fondly across the Channel or the Atlantic at the cultural and economic role of cities from Bilbao and Barcelona to Seattle and San Francisco. (Full disclosure: I wrote some of these speeches as the Director of Urban Policy at ODPM/CLG). We have had City Summits, Multi-Area Agreements, a Sub-National Review, City Deals, LEPs and Combined Authorities.  It seems hard to believe now but only 30 years ago, central government actually abolished not only the Greater London Council but the six other metropolitan councils in England also. Invisible cities, indeed. 

Given this apparent consensus, and the successful example of the GLA in London, why has so little progress been made on the ground? It may be, as the cynics would put it, that political parties are devolutionist in Opposition, but quickly discover the benefits of centralism once in office. But this doesn’t explain not just the Blair Government’s devolution to London, Scotland and Wales, but the lack of any argument for reversal of these bold devolutionary measures by the other parties. So I think we need to look at some structural factors that inhibit, or at least slow down, urban devolution. There is certainly a strong commitment in the UK to fiscal equalisation – or in more accessible language, a resistance to ‘postcode lotteries’, meaning a fairly widespread resistance to the idea of variation in quality and quantity of service delivery between areas. It may be that the relatively small size  (in comparative terms) of the UK’s leading cities outside London  doesn’t provide for the institutional capacity to take on an enhanced role quickly. 

Whatever the reasons are, we need to understand them better – or the pace of change will continue to be slow, and the gap between London and the other cities will grow



London and the UK economy: dynamo or Great Wen?

When @bridges_tom posted that he thought the role of London in the UK economy would be “one of the big issues for 2014” I was initially sceptical – but there seems to be gathering interest in the topic. In his post, he states that “a rest of Uk versus London narrative is unhelpful for a number of reasons” but we will have to wait for his next post for details.

David Smith of the Sunday Times looked at the same topic last Sunday. David Smith asks the question directly: is London good or bad for the rest of Britain? He goes on to answer this in three parts: does London distort monetary policy? Secondly, does London prop up other regions fiscally, or drain resources from elsewhere? Thirdly, what are the dynamic and supply-side effects of London’s dominance? Smith acquits London  on the second and third charges – London contributes much more to the Exchequer than it takes out, and Smith quotes evidence that regional growth rates are correlated with London’s, suggesting a positive link. On the first charge, Smith argues that in general, London is not guilty here either, with the exception of 1996-2007 when a high pound – driven by international capital flows into London/UK – hit manufacturing and hence many regional economies. Smith concludes that “London’s success is Britain’s success. it does, on balance, benefit the rest of the country.” He goes on to say that improved growth prospects in the regions will increase (not detract from) London’s success.

I think this last is a very important point. The UK regions are, in effect, London’s prime export markets. Stronger regional growth in the rest of the UK will  increase demand for London’s export of goods and (mainly) services, just as much as faster Eurozone, US or BRICs growth. Sir David Higgins, the new chairman of HS2, the UK’s second projected high-speed railway, made a similar point: “For London to operate as a really efficient global metropolis it needs to have the regions and the rest of the UK being complementary to it, and that is the big point.” (Times 15.01.14).

This isn’t a new discussion of course. William Cobbett in the 1820s, famously compared London to an unhealthy tumour (a ‘great wen’), draining goodness from the rest of the country:  ‘But, what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster, called, by the silly coxcombs of the press, “the metropolis of the empire?” ‘  Even earlier, King James I worried about the expansion of London: ” soon London will be all England”.  But what is perhaps new (or new-ish) is the greater importance of agglomeration economies and cluster effects in an ever-more globalised economic system. Seen from this perspective, it is not only London’s size, but its differences to the rest of the UK (younger, more diverse, better educated) that are significant.This generates important political and social differences – but its effect on overall economic growth is not clear.