The return of the dark star

Why politicians and cities across the UK should learn from London’s success, not bemoan it

As we wait for policymaking to start again following the election, it’s a good time to reflect on one of the biggest messages coming from both of the two biggest parties in last month’s campaign, and what it might mean for domestic policy over the coming parliament.

London gets everything, everywhere else gets nothing.

It may not have been said quite so explicitly, but campaigns on the left and right were both in many ways anti-London. The Conservative housing policy specifically stated that they would build outside of the South East, while the Labour income tax policy was a tax on London earners more than anywhere else; and both main parties offered ideas on moving parts of London’s public sector to other parts of the country. Similarly, attempts to court the Brexit vote – this year and last – came across as not only anti-London, but anti-urban and anti-global.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this of course. Alex Salmond once referred to London as the ‘dark star’ and Vince Cable called it ‘the great suction machine’. Centre for Cities too contributed to growing fears about London’s gravitational pull for the young and bright when we showed in 2014 just how many people in their 20s end up moving to the capital.

A recent article by Chris Giles in the FT picked up on this mood and argued that rather than demonise London, more people should be thanking their lucky (dark) stars that a little island like ours does so well to support the rest of the country.

And it’s true. In 2014/15 London contributed 30% of all the UK’s labour, property, consumption and capital tax revenue. Raise income tax for those earning £80k, and that proportion will grow even more.

But while we definitely should be proud of our great capital city, and of how far it has come over just 30 or so years, that doesn’t mean we should be satisfied with an economic model based on London leaving everywhere else far behind on growth, jobs, businesses and opportunities.

So were the campaigns right to focus on the many non-Londoners, rather than those living in the capital?

Well, it’s complicated.

London doesn’t necessarily get everything, but it has everything.

As Giles states, London is world class. People want to be there for its culture, its variety and its great jobs. London does a lot of things well, largely because it succeeds as a big city in a way that many of our big cities do not.

There are many critics of agglomeration but it is impossible to dismiss the effects on the capital. Its extensive and functioning (if overloaded) transport infrastructure, its dense concentration of jobs in a variety of industries, its cultural and leisure offer and its universities are what agglomeration is about.

Other cities have this going for them to large or small degrees, but appreciating that London’s success is because of – and not in spite of – it being a big, dense, populated city, could take us to a stage where instead of trying to fight or restrain the capital’s growth, politicians and policymakers use it to their advantage. That is, not for tax revenue, but as an example of what can be done in other cities.

Not everything can be transferred, not everywhere can be London – but thinking about its very nature is a good start for making more places a bit better, a bit less left behind, and yes, a bit more like London.

How to be more like London, step 1

To some extent London’s growth feels organic, but as Sir Edward Lister and Neale Coleman pointed out in our recent podcast on the mayoral model, having a leader who can act on behalf of all the boroughs collectively, rather than just an individual authority, is fantastically beneficial. Before the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority existed, London wasn’t even really London.

It can’t be said enough that Greater Manchester has done a fantastic job of knitting all its individual councils together over the last couple of decades. And our report tracking cities over the last century shows that it is on an upward trajectory more generally. Now with a metro mayor at the helm and in a great position to start lobbying government, they ought to see more of whatever it is that London gets.

Of course Manchester too, as a mini-London, gets a mini version of the criticism too. The Northern Powerhouse, for example, was (and still is) criticised as not being about the North, but about Manchester.

And perhaps it was, at first. George Osborne was right to prioritise Greater Manchester as the pinnacle of growth for the wider region. Because of Manchester’s size in particular, as well as its upward growth, it is perfectly placed to function as a London of the North, and as a London of the North, it can do more for the rest of the region.

Not trickle down (or how to be more like Milton Keynes)

It may not sound very glamorous to dream of being Milton Keynes, but the benefits it enjoys from being close to London – such as the proximity to the capital’s huge density of innovative firms and international business links – highlight the potential impact that a more successful Manchester could have on other places in the North West. Cities like Milton Keynes are fantastic in their own right, but proximity to a big, global, successful city like London really can help.

Manchester can do this, given a little time. With a mayor in place to oversee strategic planning for transport, housing and other vital infrastructure, as well as make moves towards cleaner air for residents and visitors of the city, the theory is that business will grow and locate there. And as Manchester densifies and its population grows, businesses will start to grow and locate in nearby cities that have good links to the people and firms of Manchester.

Like Milton Keynes, these smaller, but dynamic and soon-to-be growing cities of the North West probably won’t need their own mayor, but they will want to make sure that they’ve got the infrastructure and the housing to benefit from the inevitable growth they start to feel.

This may all sound like a distant dream, and perhaps it still sounds a little too much like ‘trickle down’ economics for some people’s tastes. But the country and its politicians cannot ignore how London’s success bolsters the Greater South East, and should not assume that London’s growth has to come at the expense of other places.

It is instead both a success story and a great role model for other bigger cities around the country. They won’t all perform in exactly the same way, and there will be problems – and we know London has plenty of those. But acknowledging that London is populated, productive and interesting because of the fact it is a big, dense city, might help the Government rethink any negativity towards the capital, and instead learn from its success.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

View Desktop Site