Friday 7 August 2020 4:50 am

Wanted: A plan to save London

Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons official

The motto of the City of London is “Domine dirige nos”: Lord, direct us. 

But who is directing the capital as we struggle to comprehend the future in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic?

In the UK, we are notoriously poor at strategic planning (except, perhaps, in times of war). Partly, this is an ideological issue. The Conservative party under Margaret Thatcher embraced the laissez-faire of the free market (“There is no such thing as society”) and the electoral caution of the Blair/Brown years did little to challenge that consensus. 

Read more: For young Londoners, working from home is a cramped and dismal experience

I’ll hold my hands up and admit that the idea of “dirigisme” makes me come out in a cold sweat and “10-year plans” smack too much of the Soviet bloc for me to be comfortable. I am, truly, one of Thatcher’s children.

However, like every other city and country in the world, Britain faces a systemic challenge following the pandemic. Our way of life and how we do business has been turned on its head, all the old assumptions challenged, and it will require hard and radical thinking to find answers to the questions with which we are presented. 

It seems reasonable, therefore, that at least in some way we should all pull together. 

London is not short of policymakers, with a directly elected mayor, a minister for London, the Greater London Authority which is answerable to the London Assembly, 32 boroughs with local councils (plus the City), and a clutch of quangos and arms-length bodies. Fold into that mix all the think tanks and business schools that populate the capital, and there certainly shouldn’t be a shortage of ideas for recovery, growth and prosperity.

That thinking should now be channelled into a wide-ranging, interlinked, long-term plan for the capital.

Dubai, as an example, has been quick off the mark. Its Department of Economic Development has partnered with the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government to produce what’s been branded “the Great Economic Reset Programme”, a series of initiatives aimed at creating an economic ecosystem which is more agile, resilient and sustainable. 

The ambition is, in management speak, to move to “the next normal”, a slightly emetic phrase but one which encompasses perfectly the proactive ideal of recognising and owning change. If all of your business models and assumptions have been overturned by the pandemic, then seize the opportunity to look hard at how you do things, and how you might do them better. It’s not quite a clean slate, but it’s the next-best thing.

There are signs that London is belatedly catching on. The Centre for London think tank has launched “London Futures”, a “once in a generation opportunity” to look at how the capital works as a strategic whole, encompassing governance, business, transport and communities. It aims to shape London’s future “to 2050 and beyond”, and draws on partnerships with the mayor, the boroughs, national government, businesses, universities, charities and community groups. Ambitious, yes, but holistic. It can only be hoped that the long-term nature of the project does not distract from action now.

“Change” will be the watchword of the 2020s. From a convenience store switching up its offering in response to lower footfall, to spectator sports considering virtual models if they are no longer able to draw crowds numbering tens of thousands, we will all have to adapt and evolve. 

London needs a plan, and it needs two things to effect it: top thinkers, and open minds. Are you in?

Read more: The City View: Tony Matharu on why it’s time to get London moving again

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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