London: World City, then and now
by Ben Rogers
The 25th anniversary of the deregulation of the City – the Big Bang – has got a fair amount of attention this year. But another important event in the recent history of London is in danger of passing unnoticed. I refer to the 20th anniversary of the London: World City report, (not on line) published at the end of 1991, and which had a big influence on the way London subsequently developed. The report was commissioned and developed by an unusually broad coalition of organizations – the Corporation, Westminster Council, London Transport, the Greater London Arts, – worried that the capital was punching below its weight internationally. With the Centre for London preparing for the first London Policy Conference, and London preparing for its big year in the limelight (the mayoral elections, and Olympics are fast upon us), I spent the morning going through the report. Two decades on it reads very well.
London: World City acknowledged that London was in some ways well positioned, with a strong financial services sector, great cultural provision and world class architectural heritage, among other things. But it noted several major challenges: a much weaker industrial base than other world cities; a failure to develop new sources of growth beyond the financial sector (sounds familiar?); low skills and high unemployment; high congestion and under investment in transport infrastructure and services. Most fundamentally, with the abolition of the GLC, London lacked a ‘city-wide, forward looking strategic body …. The biggest metropolitan area in Europe has no city-wide authority or agency and its major strategic decisions are in the hands of central government’. The report contended that London needed to pursue three strategic priorities: better ‘intra-city mobility’, a coordinated drive to promote London around the world, and investment in education and training.
In some ways the London: World City report makes for heartening reading. Much of what it called for has been realized. London has a strategic body in the form of the Mayor and GLA. It schools system has gone from being one of the worst in the land to one of the best, and it is better at promoting itself abroad – to students, visitors and investors. Indeed, the success of the London brand has probably exceeded even the wildest imaginings of the report’s authors and helped, among other things, secure the Olympics. And while congestion is an inevitable fact of life in any successful international city, our transport system is in better shape now than it was twenty years ago.
But some old challenges remain and new ones have arisen.
It seems almost incredible that only twenty years ago, anyone could conclude ‘House Prices in London are, on average, lower than those found in other world cities’. Housing prices would have to be near top of any list of challenges facing London today.
Climate change, not an issue back in 1991, looms large now, even if London is better equipped than many cities to adapt to it.
Poverty and unemployment remains stubbornly persistent and inequality has grown dramatically with even Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson saying he does not want to see London become any more unequal.
Finally, of course, the financial crisis has demonstrated the danger of over reliance on unregulated financial services and the need to cultivate alternatives economies.
Interestingly, Jones Lang Lassalle are working with cities expert Greg Clark, in a project looking back on the context of the London: World City report, measuring its influence, and exploring how the global standing of London has fared. The Centre for London team met with Greg and colleagues at JLL last week, and hope to be holding a seminar with them exploring their findings early next year.
In truth, 20 years is a remarkably long time in our fast changing world, and for all its prescience, the report belongs to another world. I look forward to the fruit of Greg’s work. With luck it will focus minds on the need to start afresh and doing something as ambitious as the original report.