Neil Garratt is the Leader of the Conservative Group on the London Assembly and the London Assembly member for Croydon and Sutton.
Think of a city and we picture its built environment: the landmark buildings and streets; its bustling squares and tranquil parks; the famous monuments and iconic shops. But in truth, a city is its people. To unleash London’s potential is really to unleash the potential of its people, both those already here and those around the world who aspire to be part of the next chapter in our ancient city’s story.
The recipe for success has three main ingredients: housing, transport, and culture.
People cannot thrive without somewhere to live, nor can they thrive if most of their wages go straight to a landlord. For many in our city, the housing available on normal wages looks bleak while the chance to join the dwindling band of owner-occupiers feels like a forgotten dream. Couples hoping to start or grow their family often find oppressive housing costs stand in their way.
This is not a picture of a thriving city, and the problem is price. Price is always about the balance of supply and demand, so short of driving people away we are left needing to increase supply.
There is great debate on the kind of housing required in different areas: the type of buildings and tenure, the form of built environment we want to leave to future generations. Personally, I’m a fan of gentle density; mid-rise development which is beautiful, human scale, and relatively dense. Reminiscent of Paris, Florence, or such sought-after London quarters as Belgravia and Pimlico. But there’s also a place for tall buildings, and a place for the suburban character so many of us love about outer London.
But one way or another, people need a place to live and rampaging prices are telling us that we don’t have enough.
“The objective of an urban transport strategy should be to minimise the time required to reach the largest possible number of people, jobs, and amenities.” So said urban planner, Alain Bertaud, Order Without Design: how markets shape cities.
You can think of a city as a giant labour market: all the businesses looking for people with the right skills, and all the people looking for the right job. It’s a matching problem, so the more places you can easily reach, the more likely you’ll find the right match.
If you picture someone’s commuting footprint on a map, the areas they can reach in 20 mins, 40 mins, or an hour, the transport system’s job is to expand this range. More than getting to your current job faster, we widen opportunity by giving people access to more places and businesses access to more talent.
But neither Mayor Khan nor Transport for London think this way. The Mayor’s Transport Strategy runs to 163 pages but says very little about the basic goal of helping the most people reach the greatest number of places. Mainly it talks about making people change how they travel without much interest in whether this widens or shrinks opportunity.
The Elizabeth Line’s long gestation gives us a glimpse of an older way of thinking: its opening publicity boasted that it would bring 1.5 million extra people within 45 minutes of central London. Fantastic news for our city, for the people brought closer to so many more opportunities, and a sign of the way City Hall used to think about transport. But it’s striking that under Mayor Khan they no longer think about transport projects in that way. They should, and we would all be better off if they did.
Culture, leisure, and nightlife: because city life isn’t just sleeping and working.
Pre-pandemic London was the third most visited city in the world with tourism alone, worth one in seven of the capital’s jobs. But its role is even bigger than that.
When we think about attracting talent to London, people want exciting job opportunities and they certainly want somewhere to live, but the sizzle on the sausage is the multitude of famous sights. Whether that’s restaurants, night-clubs, shows, concerts, or our captivating history – we need that side of London life to thrive. But all is not well.
As a newly elected Mayor, Khan launched his “Vision For London As A 24 Hour City” and created the Night Czar to make it happen. Then promptly lost interest. Even before the pandemic it was hard to see any impact, but as London’s nightlife was first to be closed and last to reopen, a devastated industry found its City Hall champion silent.
As Conservatives, we think incentives matter and London’s Night Czar’s incentives are backwards. In Manchester it’s an unpaid post, so the Czar’s motive is to speak up for his industry even if it’s not what the Mayor wants to hear. In London, after the recent 40% pay rise it’s a £117k job on the City Hall payroll, contractually gagged from criticising the Mayor. London should consider Manchester’s model.
The missing Mayor is doubly troublesome as licensing powers sit with boroughs. Neither he nor his Czar can compel boroughs, rather his role is his convening power and public platform both to generate a coalition of the willing and to move the public debate. But he shows little interest in either, forgetting not just the fun side of London life but the soft power it wields to sell London overseas. It desperately needs a friend in City Hall and under Khan it does not have one.
So that’s my recipe to unleash London’s potential:
Get those right and London will thrive, for those already here and for those who wish to be.