The Notebook: Nick Bowes on devolution, LA’s issues and why Lewisham is now home
ACCESS to opportunities – well-paid jobs and high-quality study – is a major part of the levelling up agenda.
Clearly, some parts of the UK don’t have the same access to jobs and education as others.
London scores well, being home to amazing universities and colleges and thousands of high-end jobs. Many Londoners can see the gleaming towers of the City and the Isle of Dogs from their homes.
But London’s experience tells us that proximity to opportunity is not enough on its own.
Look at Whitechapel and Poplar – two of the most deprived areas in the country slap bang next to the wealth of the Square Mile and Canary Wharf.
That’s why it is easy to dismiss London’s own levelling up challenges with a casual “but there’s loads of good jobs in London”.
Levelling up might wither away as a phrase, but the problems won’t disappear.
Solving London’s unique geographical inequalities will require public policy unique and tailored to the city’s circumstances.
These aren’t going to be designed in Whitehall – but in City Hall and town halls across the 32 boroughs.
That’s why devolution matters, giving local areas the powers and funding to come up with the solutions that bridge the divide between parts of London.
A response on skills and training that works for Whitechapel might not work in Wigan or Wakefield, and vice versa, and that is fine.
It’s time as a country we stop getting uptight about doing things differently in each local area and embrace our differences.
AN ANALOG SOLUTION?
When it comes to devolution, one suggestion is that the country is carved into regions that match the old ITV company areas, like Yorkshire TV, Granada, Anglia and so on. Makes sense on one level, except when it comes to London. Those old enough to remember will recall how London had two ITV companies – a Monday-Friday and a weekend franchise. Under that model, our midweek government would hand over at 5:15pm Friday to those in charge at weekends.
DON’T BE TOO HARD ON YOURSELVES
I was in Los Angeles at Christmas and Americans only wanted to talk about two things. One was Harry and Meghan (Note: I wasn’t interested), and the other was the general ‘state of the UK’, with a view from afar that the UK was in a mess. That this is the perception from abroad should worry us all. Yes, things aren’t perfect – but many of the fundamentals here remain sound. And based on my experience, Los Angeles fares badly compared to London on many measures except hours of sunshine. The public transport network is non-existent. The level of rough sleeping and squalor is shocking. Air quality is terrible, with a surprisingly low number of electric cars and charging points from what I could see. We can be hard on ourselves, and it is a reminder that London is a great city on so many levels.
I was one of those many thousands of twentysomethings that moved to London for a year to see what the fuss was about, thinking life would be like an episode of This Life. Twenty-three years later, and I’m still here – mortgage, cat, job, friends, the lot. And London is now firmly my home.
Yet when I visit my mum in South Yorkshire, as I did last weekend, she still refers to it as me ‘coming home’.
It causes her offence when I point out that Rotherham is no longer home – but Lewisham is.
At what point can someone claim London is home? I think, for one, I must now qualify.
A CHECK ON PROGRESS
People love a comparator survey to see how London fares against other major cities. This is precisely what the Global Cities Survey, a project we produce on behalf of the London Property Alliance, seeks to find out by looking at New York, Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong and London.
The picture is mixed for London. Tube passenger numbers have bounced back better here than elsewhere since the pandemic. While office vacancy rates are at an all-time high in London, Hong Kong and Manhattan are faring worse, with more than a fifth of Manhattan offices vacant compared to less than a tenth in central London.
However, in a troubling sign for London’s economy, the capital’s airports have struggled to recover their passenger numbers compared to the other cities.
Nonetheless, London’s employment rate is encouraging: only Hong Kong has lower unemployment than London, with the capital showing the second highest bounce-back of employment levels since Covid-19 of any of the cities in our survey.