“London is flourishing – but there are no guarantees that it will remain so”

Tower Bridge and City Hall, London. Image: Getty.

London is a prosperous and flourishing mega-city – but there are no guarantees that it will remain so. Great cities fall, as well as rise. New ideas and long-term planning are needed if the capital’s current global status is to endure.

The King’s Commission on London, whose report, London 2030 and beyond, was launched last week with mayor Sadiq Khan, has produced recommendations to help guard against the city’s decline in three key areas: its economy, health policy and skills training & apprenticeships.

London’s economy over the next 12 years and beyond could take a number of paths. The report maps out four, based on two key variables: the role of the UK in the global economy, especially how open and international it remains after Brexit; and the role of London within the national economy – essentially how supportive of the capital the UK government continues to be.

First, it could become a more inward-looking economy, with higher trade barriers, a relatively weak currency, the loss of some businesses to the EU and elsewhere and reduced foreign investment. At the same time, however, the UK government could continue its extensive support to the capital. The report calls this scenario “Paris on Thames”.

Second, on both the international and domestic front, London could be disadvantaged – an inward-looking economy post-Brexit and withdrawal of UK government support in an effort to “rebalance the economy”. This is called “1970s London”. We have been there before – and we don’t want to go back.   

The third scenario is “Modern Rome”: still a very international city, but lacking domestic government support, so the quality of life and services deteriorate.

The fourth is essentially the status quo: “super city”. London both retains its international openness and standing, and continues to receive the support it needs from the UK government. This requires, after Brexit, continued membership of the customs union and single market, or their equivalents in practice. A regional-based immigration policy – as in some other countries – would also be helpful.

As the report shows, this fourth scenario gives the best outcome for London in terms of employment, output and productivity, and it is what policymakers in both national and London government should be aiming for.


On health, poorly planned reorganisations have left London’s healthcare services fragmented and complex. Accountability has suffered as a result. A city-wide strategic body, overseen by the mayor, should be established to manage clinical networks and joint planning of services.

Giving the mayor such oversight, and control of the budgets to go with it, could also enable a necessary shift of resources to primary care services, and relieve the pressure on the city’s hospitals.

Equally, more powers for the mayor and London government would improve the state of skills training and apprenticeships in the city. The planned devolution to London in 2019 of the Adult Education Budget is a step in the right direction. The mayor should also be given a share of any unspent apprenticeship levy funds – which are currently just sitting in the Treasury – to supplement skills funding and help address the fact that London has the lowest number of apprenticeships starts per head in the UK.

But funding alone is not enough. An Apprenticeship Levy Council, chaired by the mayor and comprising members from the boroughs, London businesses, colleges and City Hall, should be set up to assist companies in spending their levy.

The mayor should also use both existing and already-planned powers, as well as those additional ones which the Commission advocates, to help further education colleges adapt their provision to meet changing skills shortages. They need to provide both apprenticeship training and non-award-bearing courses to meet these shortages, as and when they arise.     

Extending the scheme for Advanced Learner Loans, with better terms for those seeking training in specialities with higher shortages, such as biotech and construction, would also benefit the capital.

The Commission is clear: London can continue to prosper, ultimately, if it has more power of decision and autonomy to raise and spend the resources needed. The current over-centralised management of health and skills is damaging to London’s prospects and ability to succeed in the decade to come. Make these changes and the capital will be able, much more, to thrive.    

Tony Halmos is director of the Commission on London in the Policy Institute, King’s College London.

 
 
 
 

“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.