How can London improve infrastructure investment and its relations with growing non-metropolitan cities across the rest of the UK?
A recent breakfast talk held at NLA sought to find some answers.
Centre for London research manager Jack Brown kicked off the debate with a report on strengthening ties between London and the rest of the country and how the UK capital is perceived.
‘London’s economy is racing away from the rest of the UK’, he said, leading to discussions over whether we are a ‘regionally unbalanced country’. London puts more into the country’s purse, but Treasury figures also show that Londoners receive more public spending per head. Lots of money, though, goes on highly visible infrastructure projects, which creates ‘highly understandable resentment’; and nowhere is this truer than in transport spend.
Perhaps, suggested Brown, decisions should not be taken in Westminster and Whitehall where there is a perceived ‘bias’ to the capital, and proper devolution could lead to better governance, more democracy, and end perceptions of London-centrism.
He also recommended that there should be: more investment in infrastructure overall and everywhere; that the narrative should be changed from a ‘zero-sum game argument between London and elsewhere’ to the recognition that there is a good deal of private collaboration; and that better data would also help drive a better debate.
Arup chief economist Alexander Jan said that transport infrastructure investment is ‘crucial’ to provide for growth and that schemes like Crossrail 2 are designed to support growth much further than the reach of London, but it was hard to find schemes outside of London with similar impact. But for decades there has been concern over regional inequality, perhaps back to the war and over decanting people from the capital. Antipathy towards ‘London’ tends to get caught up with that held for politicians and even bankers, Jan said. But it was worthwhile highlighting the fact that the UK has not been as ‘into’ investment on infrastructure as its European counterparts.
Other points raised at the conference included:
- Britain has an ‘uneasy’ relationship with big projects
- The Treasury has an ‘ambivalent’ view about infrastructure investment supporting growth
- ‘Devolution is not just about democracy and legitimacy; it’s also about helping us think through this case for investment’
- With Brexit still at centre stage, should we allow the city regions to get on with these questions while Whitehall is preoccupied?
- ‘Crossrail 2 is not a London scheme’ – the benefits will be felt from the Solent to the Wash
- The £30bn project is a regional scheme ‘of national importance’
- It will enable 200,000 additional homes to be built in London and the wider South East and stimulate the economy by up to £100bn
- The biggest challenge, though is of affordability, given the government’s competing ‘asks’ for investment.
- What can the government contribute and will it look at general taxation to increase the size of the pot?
- The Bakerloo Line Extension has similar potential to unlock homes and jobs with hopes rising that Boris Johnson might be convinced of this transport’s schemes merits should be become prime minister (given recent comments on the broader issue)
- The Old Kent Road is in the 10% most deprived wards
- Construction of the BLE could start in 2024 with delivery around 2030
- ‘The challenge London has is in getting to grip what it wants from its infrastructure’
- ‘St Pancras is technically a shopping centre that trains run through’
- ‘Stations typically divide communities’
- The big challenge is: how do we generate revenue from adjacent and oversite development
- ‘As soon as Crossrail opens it will be marvellous…who remembers anything about anything late opening?’
- More consistency in policy could allow for fewer late delivered schemes
- Any curtailing of the free movement of people will have a bad effect on labour forces and the ability to deliver schemes
- More taxation to create a bigger pot for transport projects could be one way forward
- But a final plea to any incoming prime minister was simple for this area: ‘make some decisions’
By David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly