London can work with its regional neighbours to give a voice to the Wider South East

 
Nicolas Bosetti
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Political ties between London and the home counties can be frankly conflictual (Source: Getty)

We tend to think of London as a rather large city, where Kingston or Hillingdon can feel worlds apart from Tottenham or Dagenham.

But it is only one part of a much greater economic region of over 20m people, extending from the Thames Valley to the estuary, and from the south coast to east Anglia.

The futures of London and the home counties are inextricably linked. Almost a million people commute into London every day – a 30 per cent increase over the last decade. The home counties account for almost half of London’s trade within the UK. Most London airports are not in London. The list goes on.

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And far from becoming London’s hinterland, neighbouring cities like Reading, Luton or Brighton are now fast-growing job markets.

But while London and its neighbours have stronger economic links, our political ties remain weak, and can be frankly conflictual when it comes to accommodating population growth. In fact, this is partly why progress is so slow on issues like housing, Crossrail 2, or even handing dysfunctional rail franchises to Transport for London.

Our new report, Next-door Neighbours, shows the urgency of building a new relationship between London’s mayor and boroughs, and surrounding local authorities. London and the home counties need to come together with a vision for the Wider South East, one that argues powerfully for the investments in housing and infrastructure required to support growth and improve quality of life on both sides of the M25.

There are regional challenges that no mayor or council leader can address on their own: the Wider South East needs 1.5m new homes by 2026, and its economy is growing fast.

But when it comes to making decisions to shape the future of the Wider South East, the government often fails to see the bigger picture, although investments like airport expansion, HS2 or the new Lower Thames crossing will affect the whole region and should be planned for as such.

It is ironic that the Wider South East sometimes seems to lack a voice, given how many high-profile ministers and shadow ministers are MPs in the home counties or London.

Getting 156 councils to draw up a vision and a strategy would no doubt be difficult. Since Londoners elected their mayor, inter-regional planning has declined, and a gap has opened with the surrounding councils, which don’t have the planning remit or shared capacity to come up with a document like the London Plan.

But local leaders have started to fill the political vacuum. Both in London and outside, many are aware they need stronger political ties, and some have been meeting regularly.

The Wider South East Group, which holds its annual summit this week, has agreed a list of most needed transport projects, and several councils are partnering to draft strategies.

The government could really encourage these conversations by seeking joint bids for funding, and making the minister for London a minister for the Wider South East.

In the last year, other global cities struggling with these issues, like New York City and Sydney, have drafted a regional strategy with their neighbours. With a new London Plan out for consultation, this is the right time for leaders across London and the home counties to draft a common vision for the Wider South East, and to decide on a structure to carry it forward.

Next-door Neighbours has been jointly published by Centre for London, the capital’s dedicated think tank, and the Southern Policy Centre, the think tank for central southern England.

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