Tough challenges for the world’s most diverse city: but there is light in unexpected places
The Centre for London’s annual conference, which took place this year in the TUC’s Congress building in Fitzrovia, is a place for some of the London’s most creative minds across finance, government, creative industries, architecture, planning and policy to come together and reflect on the state of the capital. It is a forum for making plans for the city’s future, in ways which are both pragmatic and idealistic.
This year, Centre for London looked back at 18 years of the London Mayor. Sadiq Khan heralded a mayoralty on the verge of adulthood. He listed some of the teenaged institution’s achievements and called for more powers, not just for London but for the UK’s other major cities. Delegates agreed, when it comes to the UK, it is no longer a question of them and us.
And yet, despite the series of successes – housing, Crossrail, the Ken or Boris bike scheme (depending on where you stand), congestion charge – there was an element of doubt. Delegates from the GLA confessed to me their frustration with the limits of the body’s authority. The Mayor has to be strategic; find his successes where he can; rely on his power as a figurehead to build momentum; and lean on the mechanism of central government to follow. There remains a network of barriers created by the still flexing fingers of Westminster.
The sense of unease was notable throughout the day. After over 30 years of growth, the capital’s population has now stagnated (a blip, the Mayor said). Fewer people are coming to work and live in the city, perhaps because of Brexit, and more people are leaving – mainly young families looking for a cheaper and less pressured way of life. There are other concerns. Despite a decade of rising standards in London’s schools, inequality gaps still exist at secondary school level for pupils from less advantaged backgrounds; low skilled jobs are at risk of being replaced by automation; and productivity is falling: particularly amongst London’s so called ‘flagship’ industries – tech and the financial services. Attendees at a flexible working panel complained of exhaustion and we heard that because London firms are not adopting tech as quickly as other international cities, we are all having to work longer and more intensely just to stay in the game.
Tough times, then, especially with the uncertainty of Brexit looming very close. But there were sparks of hope. The conference holds a contest every year for bright ideas for London’s future. A few previous winners have seen their dreams realised, and are thriving – including an architecture practice aimed at uniting communities across generations which is now working closely with the GLA. We also heard from a social entrepreneur, founder of Cracked It!, an operation run by young Londoners at risk of committing, and being victims of, crime, who visit office buildings across the capital to fix cracked phone screens. Over coffee I caught up with the founder of Pro Bike Service, a gift-enterprise and self-sustainable bike repair shop located in the visionary environs of Queen Elizabeth Park. Despite leaving it up to the customer to pay what they want, his business is flourishing.
So London clearly has its challenges. But in between the economic uncertainty, the inequality and the pressure there is an entrepreneurship, a compassion and a deeply held belief that the city will survive, will continue to grow and flourish, whatever the future may bring.