Have we passed peak London?

Clouds over London. Image: Getty.

London has grown steadily for the past 30 years, in people, jobs and self confidence. Population growth has been driven both by in-migration (more people moving to London than moving away) and by natural change (more births than deaths). International migration – both EU and non-EU – has been a major factor in the city’s growth, outweighing domestic migration, where London has been a net exporter of people.

For some, London’s growth should be celebrated as evidence of its success as a global city: it’s a jobs machine; an economic powerhouse; a gateway to the UK; a generator of fiscal surpluses for the whole nation. For others, London is a “dark star”, draining the rest of the UK of people, talent, public spending and media attention. Its growth is seen as unnatural and unbalanced, leading to a large and increasing gap in opportunities, wealth and income between London and the rest of the UK.

These debates are familiar and entrenched – but perhaps they are becoming out of date. There are already some indications that London is at the edge of a major inflection point: could it be that, rather than continuing to grow, London is about to stall, or even go into decline?

Prime and decline

For much of the 20th century, London was in decline. After World War II, the city’s manufacturing and goods-handling economy faltered. Between 1966 and 1974, London’s manufacturing employment fell by 27 per cent - a loss of 390,000 jobs. Planning and economic policy favoured dispersal, more balanced regional growth and the creation of New Towns and Garden Cities outside of London. The capital’s population declined most rapidly in the 1970s: over the decade, the capital experienced a net loss of 740,000 people – that’s 10 per cent of the city’s population.

Few, if any, commentators foresaw the change that came in the mid-1980s, as the long decline in both population and jobs slowed and then reversed. Sentiment began to shift; London began to look like a place to be, rather than a city to flee. The completion of the single market, freedom of movement and EU expansion helped London to develop a specifically European economic and cultural role, alongside its status as a global city.

Globalisation – the easier movement of people, goods, services, money and ideas across borders – boosted London’s role as a centre for communication and control, and as a meeting place within the world economy. Language, time zone and cultural assets all helped. English became the global business language. London’s working day helpfully overlaps with Asia in the morning and with North America in the afternoon. And the city’s liveability, cosmopolitanism and cultural offer all made it attractive as a location for decision-makers, skilled workers and students. Complementing this economic growth, by the turn of the 21st century policy shifted to favour cities.

Without the benefit of hindsight, it is much harder to decide if we are now approaching a move in the opposite direction. There is some evidence of this: in the year to mid-2017, London’s population experienced the slowest rate of growth in over a decade, at only 0.6 per cent. International migration to London has declined to a net gain of only 83,000 individuals in 2016-17, though it remains the largest contributor to growth in the capital.

National Insurance Number registrations by people coming from overseas to work are dropping, with EU registrations falling 25 per cent year-on-year to the first quarter of 2018. Net internal migration saw a balance of 107,000 people leave London for the rest of the UK, more than 14 per cent higher than the previous year. Over 4.7m international visitors came to the capital in the final three months of 2017 - a noticeable 5.7 per cent fall compared with 2016.

Slowing down? Image: Merlijn Hoek/Flickr/creative commons.

Passenger journeys on public transport are also decreasing slightly. Falls in ridership may be an early sign that London is at or close to reaching peak growth. Or they may be driven by other factors – for example by changing work or commuting patterns, generational differences in housing choice and lifestyle or the rapid rise of ride-hailing apps.

Still the main attraction

Yet despite concerns over the impacts of Brexit, London’s economy has proved resilient, with unemployment continuing to fall and job numbers increasing. The number of jobs increased to 5.863m in the final quarter of 2017, a 98,000 (1.7 per cent) increase from a year earlier and a new record-high. The employment rate in London stood at 75.2 per cent in the three months to March 2018, also a record high. Job growth is predicted to continue, as job vacancies in the capital have reportedly increased by over 14 per cent in the year to the second quarter of 2017.


London continues to be the most productive region in the UK, although many new jobs have been created in low-pay and low-productivity sectors. And it’s still a very competitive destination for investment. In the EY 2016 European Attractiveness Survey, 57 per cent of almost 1,500 business leaders sampled put London among the top three cities for foreign direct investment in Europe.

So is London’s long boom finally coming to an end? Like any demographic or economic turning point, this one will be easier to spot in hindsight. If current trends continue, then London’s growth may slow considerably - or even perhaps reverse - over the next 30 years. Brexit could affect this in unforeseen ways - although the economic impacts of Brexit are likely to be worse outside London than within. And for the time being, London is still growing in terms of people, jobs and economic activity.

The Conversation

Mark Kleinman, Professor of Public Policy, King's College London.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.