Bringing up the rest of the country shouldn't mean 'levelling down' in the capital.
Jack Brown is a lecturer in London studies, and is the author of The London Problem (Haus Publishing).
London is at least two cities: a place of great wealth, but also one of severe poverty. The government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, which implies addressing the UK’s stark regional inequalities, is a laudable aim, but currently ill-defined.
As efforts are made to define it, it is clear that harming London’s growth would help neither the capital nor the country. But most of all, poorer Londoners cannot and must not be ignored just because of the modern electoral map.
For almost as long as there has been a London, those tasked with governing the nation have been concerned that its growth and dominance could become a problem. In the 1830s, the radical pamphleteer William Cobbett famously described the capital as the ‘Great Wen’ – an uncontrollable, ugly and intrusive cyst, draining the life of the rest of the country. Cobbet was concerned about the capital’s impact on rural areas, which he saw as parasitic.
In the twentieth century, and particularly post-war, concern about the capital took on a new dimension. Cities were seen as polluted, congested and undesirable places to live. City dwellers were to be dispersed into utopian New Towns, and urban industry actively encouraged to relocate out, through subsidies and other direct interventions.
Regional policy also sought to directly address the longstanding over-concentration of the UK economy in London and the South East. Government went as far as to ban the Greater London Council from advertising industrial opportunities in the capital. But the result was that, ultimately, regional inequalities were only decreased by London’s population and economy declining. This was a ‘levelling down’ effect, and helped neither London nor the UK as a whole.
As the twenty-first century arrived, regional inequalities have opened back up dramatically, and successive governments have noticed. David Cameron talked about ‘rebalancing’; Theresa May prepared an ‘Industrial Strategy’. The current government was elected on a pledge to ‘level up’ the rest of the nation.
What this means exactly is not yet entirely clear. A minister has only just been appointed to try and work out what ‘Levelling Up’ looks like in policy terms. Will it mean major investment in infrastructure and skills provision across the country, alongside meaningful devolution of powers to local leaders? Or will it simply mean taking money away from the capital and funnelling it elsewhere, suggesting a return to postwar ‘levelling down’?
What we do know is that politics has turned substantially against the capital in recent years. In 2016, the capital was the only UK ‘region’ to vote to Remain in the European Union.
The Conservative Party have little to no chance of winning the upcoming Mayoral elections, whilst the Labour Party nationally seem almost embarrassed by their association with London, (and particularly North London), with accusations that the party is too metropolitan, too London-centric, and therefore out-of-touch.
A narrative that has emerged that ‘real people’ can only be found in Leave-voting parts of the country, away from the capital and its surroundings, and generally in the much-stereotyped ‘Red Wall’.
However, as we know, almost half of those who voted Leave could be classed as comfortably-off, even ‘affluent’. We also know – or at least we should know – that the capital has higher poverty rates than any other UK region, and there are many Londoners who have a right to feel ‘left behind’ too.
And we should also be well aware that London and its surrounding regions are the only parts of the country that raise more in tax revenue than they receive back in public spending. This tax revenue is then redistributed – quite rightly – across the country. If London were to become independent tomorrow, the rest of the nation would fall almost instantaneously into debt.
It is in the interests of the entire nation that London’s economy recovers and thrives once more, in order to generate the revenue that funds public services across the rest of the country. It would also be in everyone’s interests if the economies of other regions and city-regions could be sparked into life.
A more geographically equal nation would be good for both capital and country – but only if it is case of genuine ‘Levelling Up’ and not ‘levelling down’ the capital. But perhaps most importantly of all, poorer Londoners must not be left out of the Levelling Up agenda simply because they live in a city that has become increasingly politically unfashionable.
You can buy The London Problem here.