Bringing it all back home

London has had a rough two years since the pandemic started. The capital has been at the forefront of successive waves of Covid, commuters and tourists have stayed away, and Transport for London seems to be being kept alive by government in much the same way that a mouse is kept alive by a bored but malevolent cat.

In some of the city’s bleaker moments commentators have wondered whether it will ever recover – some doing little to disguise their glee. At the beginning of last year, decline enthusiasts seized on an analysis of Labour Force Survey stats, which estimated that London’s population might have declined by 700,000 – nearly eight per cent – since the beginning of the pandemic, mainly as a result of foreign workers leaving the capital. Would these workers ever come back? Would the city ever recover?

New statistics out this week from the Office for National Statistics suggest that, while employment of foreign workers in London has fallen, any exodus has been a trickle rather than a flood. Between June 2019 and June 2021, payroll employment fell by around 110,000 in London. Broken down by nationality, employment fell by 40,000 for UK nationals and by 85,000 for European Union nationals, but rose by 15,000 for other foreign nationals.

The chart below tracks employment numbers compared to June 2019. Across the country, UK and EU employment has fallen while employment of people from the rest of the world has risen. The switch from EU to broader international immigration reflects the UK’s new immigration regime, introduced at the beginning of 2020, which gives EU citizens the same status as people from other countries.

Screenshot 2022 03 03 at 16.29.29

The trends are similar in London to the rest of England, but the falls were deeper and steeper in the capital and recovery has been slower, as industries such as hospitality have struggled to emerge from the pandemic. But the changes are much less dramatic than previous estimates suggested. Even in the first year of the pandemic only 100,000 European workers left employment, and by spring 2021 the trends were being reversed for all groups. EU worker employment increased by 20,000 between January and June 2021.

There are some striking differences between sectors too, some more surprising than others. The sector with the steepest job losses, hospitality, saw a reduction of 30 per cent in employment of EU workers. It remains to be seen how far these numbers will rise again as London’s commuters and tourists return, and whether new jobs will be taken by UK, European or other overseas workers. Towards the end of last year a staffing crisis hit hospitality, but the government has ignored calls to make work permits available for more roles in the sector.

Other areas with sharp EU job losses included administration and arts, entertainment and recreation. In construction, on the other hand, the EU workforce grew by 12 per cent between 2019 and 2021, and the number of other international workers by 15 per cent, while the UK national workforce remained unchanged.

We should not place too much store by these figures. They estimate the number of people employed using HMRC payroll data, so they are not precisely equivalent to job numbers, still less to population numbers. But they do give an indication of the direction and scale of change.

Can we conclude anything about population numbers? At a push. If we take UK nationals out of the picture and make the (fairly bold) assumption that the ratio of population to payroll employment for the EU and international workers was roughly the same in 2021 as it was in 2019, it looks like London’s foreign national population might have dropped by around 100,000 in the two years to June 2021. That is a big drop in a city used to net international immigration of 80-100,000 people every year, but it is a lot a lot less than some estimates and it looks as if London is already well on the way to making up lost ground.

Two years ago, I suggested that the shift to non-EU immigration would favour London, all other things being equal. All other things have certainly not been equal, but London’s loss of overseas workers to date has been in line with the colossal international disruption we have seen over the past two years. As we recover and our global connections re-open, London’s growth may once again be turbo-charged by international migration.

Civil contingencies

In my more histrionic moments, I wonder whether this is what the early days of a civil war feel like.

Since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, I\’ve been fascinated at how peaceful modern societies slip into bloody conflict. How do friends, neighbours and citizens drift from fellowship, to disassociation, to mistrust, to hostility, and eventually to murder, concentration camps and ethnic cleansing? Is there a moment when the rift becomes unbridgeable and conflict all but inevitable, or is the descent so slow, smooth and subtle that it can hardly be spotted? Ignorance and suspicion replace understanding and empathy, and provide fertile ground for rumour, conspiracy theory and paranoia.

We are – of course – nowhere near there. As I said, \’histrionic\’. But we are not as far away as I\’d like us to be. Brexit splits feel sharper and deeper than those of party politics. The subject is avoided with family and friends, rather than fuelling debate and discussion. Social and conventional media deploy the rhetoric of \’treachery\’, \’racism\’, \’bad faith\’ and \’ignorance\’. Both leavers and remainers, for example, lambast the BBC for its bias in the others\’ favour.

Perhaps it is made worse by the way that the conflict is seen as existential for people\’s identities, for the United Kingdom, for sovereignty, for a sense of engagement and inclusion in the world. When you re playing for keeps, rather than \’giving the other lot a go\’ for the next five years, you think in more manichean or even apocalyptic terms about the struggle, to be won or lost for all time.

The compromises that might have made everyone slightly happy three years ago seem more and more remote. Only the unambiguous victory of a \’clean Brexit\’ or a revocation of Article 50 is acceptable to the ultras, and they are largely in control of the discourse, ready to assail the motives of anyone ready to settle for seond best.

Still, this is not the Balkans and this is not 1991.  But you do wonder whether things may have turned out differently if, in some small Bosnian grad thirty years ago, Milan had paused to consider whether Ahmet really was the scheming fifth columnist that the papers were suggesting, rather than the neighbour who he had known since childhood, and to consider whether there was some way of resolving differences that did not involve displacement, hostility and the unmaking of nations.

Colonel Blimp\’s Brexit

At the London Conference last week, Michael Heseltine seemed positively sprightly despite his 86 years. Interviewed by my boss Ben Rogers, he reflected on how his interventions had transformed urban policy in England.

It was only at the end that Ben asked about Brexit, and what made Heseltine so fervently pro-EU. \”I was a product of the Second World War,\” Heseltine replied. \”I was born in 1933, on the day Hitler came to power in Germany. Even now I can hear Neville Chamberlain announcing the declaration of war in 1939, and I can remember the the bombers that came at 9 o\’clock every night when we were living in Swansea. It Must Never Happen Again. It is why Europe is what it is.\”

This was a powerful expression of a common narrative among the generation that estabished and strengthened the European Union, that it is a bulwark against the genocidal forces of nationalism and fascism that tore the continent apart twice in the 20th Century. It was what Heseltine said next that was more striking.

Britain had won the war, but \”perhaps the psychology of victory had its own problems. We had stood alone. Without us, what possible victory was there? We had a special relationship with the US, we were head of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. How could we throw our lot in with these defeated boring people?\”

This sense of proud isolationism, so iconically captured in Low\’s June 1940 cartoon above, seems as powerful a force in anti-EU sentiment as the narrative of \’never again\’ is among the Union\’s advocates. It is reflected in the endless invocation the spirit of the blitz, in talk of treachery and enemies, in complaints of \”bullying by Germans\”, in romantic notions of trade alliances with former colonies.

And there of course is the point. Britain was never truly alone. 3.5 million troops from the British Empire fought in the Far East, the Mediterrranean and the Atlantic, 5 million Russians pushed the Nazis back on the Eastern Front, and 16 million US troops fought (2 million in Europe). But the myth is powerful, and underpinned by the endless cyle of remembrance of battles and – perhaps most poignantly – defeats such as Dunkirk.

But Britain really could be alone after Brexit, even more so if Scotland and Northern Ireland secede. Myths of military glory, of victories snatched from the jaws of defeat, of davids knocking down goliaths, are part of every nation\’s narrative patrimony – harmless if sometimes distastefully jingoistic. But they shouldn\’t be mistaken for political prescriptions, or blind us to the messy realities of yesterday and today.

What would a ‘Singapore-style’ Brexit mean for London?

[Originally published in CityMetric, 9 October 2019)

A few months ago, a senior EU official told a friend of mine that their most feared outcome from Brexit negotiations would be the UK diverging from EU standards to become a low-tax, low-regulation “northern Singapore” on the continent’s doorstep. 

Reports over recent weeks suggest that this is precisely what the government’s attempted renegotiation of the EU Withdrawal Agreement is seeking to achieve – more room for divergence from Brussels on standards and regulation. Whatever the desirability or feasibility of such a shift, what might it mean for London?

Singapore is an occasionally liberating reminder that there are other ways of running cities. The island city-state off the coast of Malaysia is the magic mirror of urban policy, in which both right and left can see what they wish to see. The right sees low personal and corporate taxes (public spending is half the level it is in the UK), business-friendly regulation, self-reliance promoted through compulsory savings for retirement and health insurance, draconian law and order policies including capital and corporal punishment, and active promotion of family values – for example through giving married couples with children priority allocations of flats.

The left looks to another side of Singapore. It sees active regulation for environmental protection and reduction in congestion, through restrictions on car ownership and use (albeit administered through a regressive system of high-priced permits and road tolling). It also sees the Housing Development Board (HDB), the government agency whose flats house 80 per cent of Singapore’s citizens. Most are sold at 20 to 50 per cent of the price for an equivalent open market flat, though some are available at low rents of five to 20 per cent of household income. A complex formula is used to ensure a representative ethnic cross-section in every development – part of an explicit commitment to engineering a cohesive nation state from Singapore’s various ethnic groups.

The HDB makes a loss every year (around £1.8bn in 2017-18), but the rationale for its work is aspirational rather than welfarist. In the words of Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew: “That loss is to give the man an asset which he will value, which will grow in price as the country develops, as his surroundings become better.”

Both sides may also look at Singapore’s education system in admiration. The city spends less on education than the UK (as a proportion of GDP), but Singapore consistently ranks at the top of the PISA international education league tables. The system emphasises teacher-led education and is accused of prioritising rote learning over creativity, but it is also based on paying excellent salaries for the best teachers, and rigorous testing of educational reforms.

It is simplistic to think that one can simply replicate the conditions and practices of a tropical city-state in south east Asia in a northern European city. Culture, history and geography all underline differences. But the focus on housing and education does respond to two of the biggest challenges of maintaining social cohesion and economic welfare in an open global city economy.

As London’s economy has opened up, the city has already seen a surge in both house prices and workforce qualification levels. Londoners are competing for housing and jobs with people from across the UK and beyond. House prices have jumped from seven to 13 times median salaries since 2002, putting them out of reach of more and more Londoners on modest incomes and without access to capital, and dramatically widening wealth inequality.

Similarly, London is highly qualified: 53 per cent of London’s workers are qualified to degree level (compared to 31 per cent in the rest of the UK). But the population as a whole doesn’t compare so well: London scores less well than many other global cities – and less well than other English regions – when compared on the basis of international tests such as PISA and PIAAC. Without the wealth or skills to compete, it is hard for Londoners or other British citizens to make their way in the capital.

Singapore’s oddity is that it includes both low-tax, low-regulation elements that commend it to global capital; and active intervention in transport, housing and education policy to protect the environment, ensure social cohesion, and to enable the local population to benefit from the opportunities that global city trading can offer. Whether or not the UK chooses the former, London urgently needs to consider the latter if all citizens are to feel they have a stake in their city and an opportunity to share in its prosperity.

Could tighter border controls boost London\’s population (July 2019)

[Published on Centre for London blog, 26 July 2019]

After easing off in 2017, London’s population growth picked up pace last year to hit 83,000, with a resurgence in international immigration the principal cause of the recovery, as illustrated in Centre for London’s most recent edition of The London Intelligence.

The latest ONS population projections suggest that London will continue to grow at around this level in the coming years, adding 774,000 residents over the period 2016-26; growth of 8.8 per cent. The capital will still be the fastest growing English region, but will not be growing as fast as it did in the ten years to 2017, when growth was estimated at 1.1 million residents (15 per cent). Net international immigration outstripped net domestic out-migration by around 10 per cent last year, but the ONS forecast the net impact to be more balanced in future with natural change (births minus deaths) continuing to account for the expanding population.

Looming over these projections, however, is the spectre of Brexit. Leaving the European Union will definitely have an impact, but what will it be? It could be that the UK’s departure will lead to an even sharper slowdown in migration; certainly immigration tailed off during the two years of limbo since the referendum, and remains much lower than it was in 2015 or 2016. Given London’s high migrant population, this could hit the capital, and its economy, particularly hard.

But beyond the current hiatus, post-Brexit immigration rules could do precisely the opposite. Notwithstanding the change of government (and any deals done as part of future trade negotiations), the plan appears to be for EU and other migrants to be on an equal footing. Immigration from within the EU may fall back, while immigration from further afield may rise or at least stay steady. The London Intelligence already shows a rebalancing in the number of national insurance numbers issued to EU and non-EU nationals: the former were six per cent lower in the year to March 2019 than in the previous year; the latter were 21 per cent higher.

This matters because immigration from beyond Europe tends to have a different geographic distribution from European migration. Specifically, it is more concentrated in London and – to a lesser extent – other cities. While London has just over twice as many EU migrants in its working age population as non-urban areas of England and Wales do, it has four times the proportion of people born beyond the EU. Similarly, while the largest ‘core cities’ (Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield) have similar levels of EU-born working-age residents to the rest of the country, they have twice the proportion of people born further afield.

% of 16-64 year old population born in other EU countries % of 16-64 year old population born in non-EU countries
London 14 32
English and Welsh core cities 7 16
Rest of England and Wales 6 8

So more immigration from outside the EU, and particularly from emerging economies of the southern and eastern hemispheres, may mean more concentration in London and other big cities, where people from these countries will already find settled communities of their former compatriots.

And in London, this trend may be intensified by another element of the government’s proposals, a pay threshold for jobs held by foreign workers – designed to prevent the import of cheap unskilled labour. The government has not confirmed what this threshold should be but the Migration Advisory Committee recommended maintaining the current level of £30,000 (while abolishing other requirements such as the ‘resident labour market test’, which requires jobs to be advertised within the UK before recruiting overseas).

While many jobs in London, particularly in migration-dependent sectors such as restaurants, pay poorly, salaries are significantly higher overall. Government data on earnings show that 66 per cent of workers in London earn more than £30,000 pa, compared to 30 to 40 per cent of workers in other regions. So setting a minimum pay threshold – whether at £30,000 or at lower levels, as groups such as London First have argued – could further concentrate immigration in London, where more jobs would in theory be accessible for foreign workers.

Giving preference to immigrants with higher qualifications, through a more ‘points-based’ system as advocated by Boris Johnson during the Conservative leadership campaign, could further focus immigration in the capital, as immigrants who settle in London also tend to be more qualified.

These factors, together with perceptions of London as a city that is still open to immigrants, may serve to focus future international immigration on the capital, potentially turbo-charging population growth. This may look superficially serendipitous: London, the part of England most at ease with immigration and most opposed to Brexit, may see a resurgence in immigration, while changing demographics, and tougher salary and qualification requirements may curb immigration beyond the M25.

But it may also deepen economic as well as cultural differences between London, other cities and the rest of the UK. While London continues to make the case for infrastructure to support a growing population, other regions may start seeing population decline, as their economies struggle without the migrant workforce that farmers, restaurateurs and hoteliers rely on.

We may even, in time, see a shift in the tone of national debate, with politicians making the case for immigration rather than avoiding the subject – or even seeking to implement policies to encourage immigrants to look beyond the big cities as in Canada. As with so many aspects of Brexit, seemingly simple moves can have complex, surprising and far-reaching consequences.

My thanks to Professor Tony Travers of the LSE for his insights and help with this article.

Ceremony and memory (July 2019)

[Published OnLondon, 10 July 2019]

26 July, 2012 was a warm evening. I arrived to meet a friend at a pub in Brighton, which was hosting its annual visit from the Chanctonbury Ring Morris. As we sat outside, and the dancers whirled, jingled and clacked, I took a photo and tweeted – very drolly I thought – “Beat that, Danny Boyle.”

The next night, by common consent, he did. And how. After a slightly iffy handover in Beijing in 2008, featuring double-decker buses, bowler hats and a bemused-looking Boris Johnson, the London 2012 opening ceremony was a spectacular. It took in Brunel, Blake, Berners-Lee and Beckham; dancing nurses, lesbian kisses, and parachuting monarchs, Shakespeare and smokestacks. A nervous nation breathed a sigh of relief, and began to tell itself that maybe, just maybe, the London Olympic and Paralympic Games would go okay.

Seven years later, the lavish performance is still memorable, a very modern celebration of patriotism and pride, unity and diversity. But its meaning is now freighted with awareness of what followed, of the divisions that were triggered or laid bare by Brexit. We re-watch it through our fingers, like the opening scenes of a film where unsuspecting teens arrive for a party at a beautiful, isolated, cabin in the woods.

For many Remainers the ceremony stands for everything that Brexit threatens to destroy. Writing just after the EU referendum, Frank Cottrell-Boyce (who co-created the event with Boyle) made the contrast explicit: “The nation we saw in the opening ceremony and the nation we saw in the referendum are both real. They’re two parts of diptych. One holds out the possibility of inclusion and ease. The other might be seen as a kind of scream of pain and fury that tells us how it feels to be excluded from that ease.”

Similar sentiments are easily found on Twitter:

“The opening ceremony was the best of our gods, Brexit is the worst of our demons.”

“The optimism, pride and celebration of multiculturalism woven into that marvellous opening ceremony should have been a launchpad. Instead we made it a diving board.”

“On the night before Brexit I will be watching the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony and wondering what the fuck went wrong…”

For some Leavers, on the other hand, the opening ceremony’s celebratory optimism remains a reminder of Britain’s potential, of what Brexit can recapture if only the nation would re-unite. In the recent words of Liz Truss: “We need to revive the Olympic 2012 spirit – a modern, patriotic, enterprising vision of Britain and we need to use Brexit to achieve that.” In 2016 – a few days after the referendum – Johnson wrote pointedly of the “gloomy predictions that were banished” by London 2012.

But not everyone is convinced. Writing in the Guardian this week, Dawn Foster identified the “false premises” underpinning “centrist thinking”; one was “that the 2012 London Olympic ceremony represented an idyllic high-point of culture and unity in the UK, rather than occurring amid the brutal onslaught of austerity, with food bank use growing and the bedroom tax ruining lives”.

Others have argued that the ceremony’s reprise of a rosy national story fostered a sense of “Britain can make it” nostalgia that stoked anti-EU sentiment. Conversely – and as hinted by Cottrell-Boyce – its inclusive vision has been seen as deepening the resentment of those who felt alienated from the multicultural zeitgeist – a resentment which would later find expression in some Brexit votes.

Certainly the ceremony’s narrative – The internet! The NHS! Britpop! – can sound like a Tony Blair conference speech, but with better dancing and more verbs. And the golden glow of our memories can blind us to what else was happening in the early years of this decade: the first austerity budgets, recession, riots on the streets of London, divisions that were perhaps as deep as they are today but less visible.

But fact that the meaning and significance of a sport festival’s opening ceremony is still so keenly contested is a tribute to its persisting power – as a symbol of what we are losing, as a reminder of what we could be, or simply as a powerful piece of propaganda for a national unity that was always illusory.

In 2016, scheduled “four years on” reflections on the opening ceremony collided with the disruptive shock of the EU referendum result. I suspect we will still be debating both on 24 July next year, as Tokyo 2020 gets underway.


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I’m starting to wonder whether there is a remainer case to be made for a ‘hard Brexit’, for severing trade ties completely with the EU, rather than seeking to maintain regulatory alignment, or some type of associate membership of the single market and customs union.
Many remain voters – me included – still hope that the referendum result can be undone, by parliamentary process or referendum, so that the UK can stay in the European Union. As a fall back position, we tend to advocate a ‘soft Brexit’. But, without quacking about “vassal” status, it is worth questioning the value of this option. It would be like a slightly inferior version of what we have today, with no say in the rules governing trade and the development of the single market.
This means that those rules would over time work more and more against UK interests and in favour of those of the EU27 (for example, stipulating that financial institutions must be located within the Eurozone, or slapping ever higher tariffs on the medicines and engine parts that we export). This will not happen in every case, and when it does it will not be the result of malice but of simple self-interest – and the absence of a UK voice at the negotiating table. And every time it happens, the Brexit geek chorus will start up, rattling its chains, bemoaning that we are being penalised by evil and unaccountable bureaucrats, and making Faragist demands for “true Brexit”.
So, why not let the Johnsons, Foxes and Hannans have their hard Brexit, setting sail on the high seas of global commerce to seek our fortune? I personally think that this will be disastrous for the UK – culturally, economically and environmentally. But what do I know? It may be that hard Brexit will lead to a great renaissance of the UK as a prosperous, open and respected nation, and I hope I would have the good grace to be delighted as well as surprised if that was the result.
Alternatively, hard Brexit might lead to a short, sharp and shocking decline, rather than the gradual ebb of a soft Brexit. This might be succeeded by a Phoenix-like recovery, or the shock might precipitate a collective volte-face and desire to rejoin the EU.  The terms might not be perfect, but I think the continent would welcome its prodigal home.
And that’s where the irony lies. Given the simmering resentment on both sides likely to result from soft Brexit, its main appeal lies in the ease with which we would be able to rejoin the EU, but perhaps makes that outcome less likely.  A cleaner break would give us a clearer view of what we had left behind, but make it that much harder to rejoin. I don’t want to underplay the damage that might be done by a hard Brexit, but worry that the rule-taking halfway house of soft Brexit may just lead to a slower and more rancorous slide to a similar end-state.
All that said, however, \”nobody knows anything\” as screenwriter William Goldman wrote about the inability of studios to predict confidently which films will succeed and which will bomb at the box office. As we begin another year of bad-tempered Brexit wrangling, it’s a maxim worth bearing in mind.