London, UK. Not my location, it is the name of the new report from the Centre for London which looks at the relationship between the capital and the rest of the country. Some have already given it a once-over to try and understand the recommendations it has made, but I wanted to take a step back and look at the whole thing and try and understand why the report has been written and what, practically, it means.
You see, this is emissaries from London making some points about the relationship between the city and the rest of the country and trying to enter the debate about how this changing relationship should be guided. Of course it isn’t official city policy, but the foreword signed by the Mayor Of London, Chair of London Councils, Leader of Westminster Council and a City Corporation Committee Chair should suggest some level of senior policy maker buy-in.
Taking in some of the public comments that have been made across the rest of the country, the report is focused around a survey (total sample size 3,101) asking Londoners and non-Londoners what they thought about the capital and also some high-level discussions with different people across the country. In essence I think this is trying to match whether the comments that come out from non-London based public statements (from Mayors, other politicians, think-tanks and alike) reflect what people outside the capital think. There’s some merit in that, but we have to ask whether this is about getting a better understanding or seeking to debunk leaders and public commentators outside London. If you had asked someone in Leeds a year ago if Channel 4 would move to the city, you would most likely get a very bemused look and a no. But talk to people now about it and they are enthused and know the move will lead to more jobs for the city.
Similarly, the report goes to great lengths to teach the controversy with regard to infrastructure spending, taking time out of a busy report to outline both IPPR North’s transport infrastructure reports and the DfT’s response before abruptly refusing to come to a conclusion about it. Again, this partly looks like taking non-London viewpoints seriously and partly looks like kicking up dust and hoping a straightforward message from outside London is muddied.
Perhaps we therefore need to come to a first conclusion about the report: it is part of London’s partial response to the ongoing debate. In a way, it shows that there is agreement in the capital that this is a debate worth joining and one to which they (absolutely) should have a voice. There is recognition that there are inequalities in infrastructure spending and a democratic deficit between London and other areas and concrete recommendations on how to solve them. This is all positive.
But in being London’s response it also gets to make their arguments. The report gives a potted history of London’s relationship to the rest of the country in its appendices, which is worth a read as one of the gentlest apologia for our current skewed economy of all time. In my view the history makes three main connected arguments: firstly, that previous attempts to use policy to rebalance the economy have failed. Secondly, that attempts to try this again would move away from the financial freedoms given to private enterprise in a global world. Thirdly, London is now so big it is an international city and is therefore different. Where once this could have been turned around, it is too late now.
The recommendations chime with this thinking- London needs to be allowed to continue the growth of its economy. London can redistribute the wealth it creates, wishes other areas well in seeking their own wealth and can advise them on how to do this. Other areas can become more like London and London will show them how, but consciously restructuring society, culture or the economy away from London is right out. Infrastructure spending can unlock growth, but is also required in London to manage the consequences of growth.
Infrastructure spending and regional growth not being a zero sum game appears over and over in the report- what helps the regions will also help the capital. This is right- economic benefit will be felt across the economy if there are improvements to infrastructure and regional economies. But this misses a fairly key point- how will the report author feel if there is a decision that benefits somewhere else which is detrimental to London? Zero sum doesn’t mean no losers. I’ll put that another way, I think the report wants us to know that London cares and that London shares, but will it give away? Not the taxes redistributed away from it, but the economic, social, cultural and political tools it already owns?
So here is what I take from the report- it is an opening gambit. It is good to have those in London taking part in a discussion that has often been an echo chamber of disaffection in the regions. That some in the capital feel the need to make both an argument and concessions shows how far this conversation has moved. They have also made a selection of sensible recommendations that would be at the bare minimum end of the scale for anyone looking to rebalance the nation’s economy away from its single largest city. But they are not offering enough for wide-scale change in the regions and certainly are not looking for London to change as a result. It is London offering a genuine helping hand when what we need to agree is a different way to arrange our national economy.
Is the right response something equally genuine showing what a sensibly balanced economy would look like, warts and all?