It seems to be a political truth almost universally acknowledged that levelling up the UK must mean shifting economic and community wealth out of London.
But a panel of experts has put that assertion under scrutiny – pointing to the flaws in this reasoning and beginning to consider the fresh narratives that should replace it.
Opening the recent discussion on an optimistic note, chief executive of the national organisation for local economies (CLES) Sarah Longlands highlights that the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper in February represented a sense that ‘the penny had finally dropped’.
Speaking at the event in Bethnal Green in East London organised by CLES, she says that while it was good to see that we had ‘finally had that admission that our economic system wasn’t working for people anywhere in the UK’, we don’t yet have clarity on how levelling up will be delivered.
Ambiguity remains, ‘particularly around the resources, the powers, the agency if you like, both at a national level and a local level, to really start to change things’ and to change the economic system itself.
She believes the levelling up agenda has put too much focus on the ‘imaginary Red Wall somewhere north of Watford’. She thinks many of those who work and live in London have [come across] a sense that levelling up means levelling down London, and that ‘London was fine and that it’s what happens in the north or in the West Midlands that we really need to deal with’.
She continues: ‘Of course I don’t need to tell you that there are inequality and challenges in London just like anywhere else in the UK, and I guess that’s the real interesting conversation that we want to have.’
In her view, the other challenge with the Levelling Up White Paper is that the prescription seems to be for ‘more of the same’.
She mentions a White Paper quote ‘that talks about “growing the pie everywhere for everyone”, but just growing the pie isn’t good enough – that’s what we’ve been trying to do for the last however many years’.
Looking at London, she says ‘what we are growing are huge levels of unaffordability, growing levels of child poverty, and of income inequality’ and she asks if ‘those are the metrics we want to continue to grow in future’.
There are five different levers that can be pulled to really start to accelerate the flow of wealth into communities and lives, she concludes; ‘decent jobs, land and property, procurement and commissioning using your own economic muscle to really drive change, finance, and finally ownership and reconnecting people to their economy’.
In an overview of the challenges for the capital, chief executive of the think tank Centre for Cities Dr Nick Bowes says London ‘has the second highest regional unemployment rate in the country after the north east, it’s got the worst inequality, with 27% of Londoners living in poverty’.
‘And although the median income is the highest in the UK, when you take into consideration housing costs it’s hovering just above the national average.’
The capital was hit harder by the pandemic, more people were furloughed, unemployment went up by more and it has probably struggled more to recover from the pandemic than any other part of the country, he adds.
But alongside this it is also a very successful world city, ‘and the leader in many sectors in finance, tech, entertainment, fashion, film, media and publishing, the list goes on, there’s this amazing soft power projection across the world that other cities would give anything to have, and it is a huge net contributor to The Treasury’.
He says ‘we can try and tell this story and make sure London gets the attention that it needs while not damaging its success, but we have a problem because when we use this argument we’re either not believed or people don’t actually care’.
Pointing to ‘a very strong perception that London doesn’t have any poor people or any challenges’, he says ‘it is a really big job to tackle some of that’.
There are also some ‘really difficult political challenges’, with London ‘just not important to the Tory party nationally…. and the Labour party is at risk of taking the city for granted’. So London is missing out on both fronts, ‘and it’s worse than that – there are actually votes to be had from bashing the city’.
But he emphasises that the case for arguing that London needs its fair share of levelling up resources is not going to be won by throwing data around. There’s no killer statistic that’s going to swing the argument in London’s favour, he believes.
What is the best way to tell those new stories about London that Dr Bowes believes are so crucial? Cllr Rabina Khan is the Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of Tower Hamlets LBC. She says she can see the way things have moved on in the borough from the rag trade and the docks that were pulled down, to the building of Canary Wharf, but it is still the case that 56% of children live in poverty and the average annual income for many families is £15,000.
Following the departure of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) along with its nearly 1,000 jobs from Canary Wharf following the Brexit vote, she wondered what could replace it. She says she decided to run a campaign backing the importance of the Life Science industry to the economy. ‘For me [the best way] to tell the story of Tower Hamlets and attract the attention of Government was to start a campaign for Life Science.’ Because of its diverse local population, she says the local Barts Health NHS Trust holds the largest database of diverse [medical research] data in Europe. ‘And that would mean the levelling up agenda could use the Life Science economy in Tower Hamlets.’
Cllr Georgia Gould is the Labour leader of Camden LBC and chair of London Councils. She says that while the ‘national message from Government is deliberately stoking up tensions and differences between the cities for political gain’, she does think there is a different story to tell which is led by local leaders. She points to some recent work done by both Camden LBC and Leeds City Council, where they both talked about shared challenges, ‘and we were both having shared discussion about how we’re using community wealth principles and the connections between our cities’.
The challenges faced by London ‘absolutely describe’ those confronting her borough. As well as being home to the Google headquarters, she says Camden has the biggest biomedical research centre in Europe in the Francis Crick Institute, as well as Facebook and Universal Music - ‘all of these amazing companies that have found their home in King’s Cross’.
But she hammers home that while the borough has these global business jewels, ‘just walking around there you have some of the worst poverty not just in London but in the country, and those two things sit side by side’. A survey at the start of the pandemic found that a primary school ‘20 seconds from Google’ where 70% of children didn’t have access to a device to learn from home. They were ‘next to it, but incredibly far away from it still’.
If there is one thing that drives what Camden is trying to do it’s wanting those businesses to be ‘not places that young people walk by on their way to school, but places they interact with, that they work in, that they help shape’.
And there’s a ‘different kind of anger that comes from living in really extreme poverty next to that kind of wealth, and that’s very hard for our communities’, she points out. ‘We’ve done a huge amount to connect those two communities and to ensure those opportunities are shared. But our communities do still talk about sometimes feeling like an island of poverty in between glass buildings.’ Persuading and convening are going to be key in order to bring some of that wealth to communities, she adds.
Returning to Dr Bowes, he is focused firmly on the importance of finding a way to ‘stitch the country back together because it is a very divided and fragmented country’, before it gets to what he calls a ‘snapping point’.
He’s also adamant that it’s time to tell a story about why London’s success matters to the whole country. He adds: ‘The bit of the story we have to get better at telling is what does Google’s headquarters in London’s King’s Cross bring to the whole of the country? We’ve forgotten to tell that [story], or we’ve not had to tell that story. But I think we’re going to have to find ways of doing it.’