Losing my religion – or how I learned to start worrying and distrust the news…

 As the waves of Covid19 have ebbed and flowed over the past 10 months, I have become more and more fixated on the data that chart their course. Every afternoon, I check if the daily case, hospitalisation, death, and now vaccination numbers have been updated. I look at the curves, at regional patterns, at the maps that enable me to zoom in to my neighbourhood, and those where family and friends live. Every week I look out for the ONS infection survey, and for other surveys like the Imperial REACT study and the Kings College London’s ZOE symptom tracker.

Why am I doing this? I’m not sure it’s healthy behaviour. I am not an expert in interpreting epidemiological data; and much of the time I learn very little. The problem is that I find myself believing less and less what the government or most media outlets are telling me. I see a headline proclaiming that the lockdown is having no impact, even as cases are falling across the country, then another telling me the opposite 48 hours later. The next day a paper tells me that a new strain of coronavirus is more deadly (albeit with sly quote marks), while another news outlet tells me the question is still open.  The government cautiously suggests there is some evidence that lockdown is having an impact, when their own data show that case numbers have fallen by a third since the beginning of January.

At one level, this is not really surprising. The pandemic is a complex phenomenon, and its progress is the product of imperfectly understood pathology and the unpredictable behaviour of wearied humans, which is further complicated by delays of weeks between actions and effects. Different data may point in different directions, and reasonable people may disagree on interpretation.

But I worry that a lot of disagreement is not reasonable, but partisan. Online, the debate is polarised between presumed ‘covid deniers’ and alleged ‘lockdown lovers’. Passionate intensity reigns, and good faith arguments seem thin on the ground. When in early January I pointedto some limited evidence that case numbers seemed to be falling in the parts of the south east England that had been locked down since mid-December, I was corrected (rightly) for looking at case numbers rather than positivity rates (though the trend was sustained, so I was right even if accidentally), but I got the feeling that my real error was being on the wrong side of the argument, that I was suspected of trivialising the illness, or making a point for or against lockdowns.

So far, so Twitter. But the mass media are not much better. Rather than trying to offer level-headed analysis, some papers seem wilfully optimistic, others determined to find the clouds behind every silver lining. And Government, along with a BBC that has increasingly operated as state broadcaster during the crisis, seems to issue statements and information based primarily on their likely effect on behaviours, rather than on their accuracy.

I have mixed feelings about all this. I can actually understand and to some extent support the ‘behavioural’ approach taken by the government and the BBC. The last thing we need now is irrational optimism leading to reduced compliance with government restrictions. Even George Orwell saw the value of propaganda in war time; and if the enemy today is complacency and lockdown fatigue, then we cannot be surprised if the government uses every means to keep it at bay. 

But this approach has shaken or even corroded my faith in institutions (a faith that may have been too blindly given in the first place). I have always listened to politicians through a sceptical filter, but that filter is now applied to scientific advisors, academics and BBC journalists. Hearing them, I no longer simply expect to become better informed, but at some level suspect that I am being played, that the aim of the communication is behaviour modification (“a call to action” – or more likely inaction, these days) not enlightenment. 

Scepticism may be healthy, but when faith in institutions is eroded, all sorts of wild flights of fantasy can take its place. To paraphrase a quote attributed to GK Chesterton, when people stop believing in institutions, they don’t believe in nothing, but can believe in anything. Behaviour change communication may be entirely benign in intention, but it also risks fuelling conspiracy theories and sweeping distrust of experts. 

Meanwhile, I go back to the data, clicking on the charts every afternoon, trying to keep both optimism and pessimism in check as the pandemic rolls grimly on.


Against declinism

Jointly with Mark Kleinman

[First published on Kings College London blog (also at Centre for London blog and OnLondon, w/e 24 January 2021]

London enters 2021 in a very different mood, not just to last year, but to much of the zeitgeist of the last 30. There were fireworks on the Thames on new year’s eve, but no crowds were watching in the streets and parks. The mood of the impressive light and sound show was one of resilience and solidarity, rather than unbridled confidence. As with the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic Games, praise for the National Health Service took a central role, but the tone was less celebratory than seriously grateful.

London has suffered badly, both from the health and the economic impacts of the pandemic, as can be seen in The London Intelligence Economic Tracker. As we write, the NHS in London and throughout the UK is again straining under pressure. The emerging labour market evidence shows a particularly severe downturn in London. The Greater London Authority (GLA) Economics team report that the number of workforce jobs fell 3.8% (229,000) in the capital between March and September – a far greater fall than for the UK as a whole, at 1.8%. They go on to say that while in the earlier stages of the pandemic, there were only modest changes in headline labour market statistics relative to the large falls in activity, this has changed more recently, with large movements in London’s unemployment rate. In the three months to October, the unemployment rate rose a record 1.2 percentage points to 6.3% in London – the largest quarterly rise since the series began in 1992. Only the North East region has a higher current unemployment rate than London, at 6.6%.

As we hobble through the next few months, bigger questions are being asked about the future of cities and of London in particular. Will the “urban age” of big cities leading global trade and growth return? Or does the future lie in more dispersed and fractured economic activity, as globalisation falters, global travel slows and/or the benefits of agglomeration are outweighed by the convenience and safety of working from home?

The debate has been growing in recent years about whether we have reached “peak London”, whether the city’s phoenix-like recovery from post-war deconcentration and urban flight has run out of steam. Like waves of pandemic infections, the turning point of cities’ fortunes are more easily visible after the event: nobody really expected London to start growing again in the mid-1980s.

Population growth has been slowing in London over the past three years. Moreover, recent analysis of Labour Force Survey data by Michael O’Connor and Jonathan Portes suggests that London’s population could have fallen during the pandemic by as much as 700,000 – a huge turnround. And consultants PwC recently forecast a 300,000 person decline by the end of 2021. These are only estimates and projections, and of course much of this change might be temporary. Will 2020 prove to be a blip, reflecting the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, or will it be another inflection point like 1987?

The latest demographic projections issued by the GLA in November 2020 forecast a return to growth – though at a slower rate than the past decade, when London’s population grew by almost 90,000 every year. Their “central projections” anticipate growth of around 50-70,000 people per year instead, with the next two years at the lower end of this scale. This would lead to a potential population of around 11 million by 2050 (compared to just under 9 million in 2019).

Population growth is driven by two factors: migration and natural increase. In the year to mid-2019, London’s population was estimated to have increased by 54,000. This consisted of net of 77,000 people to London from overseas, net movement of 94,000 people from London to the rest of the UK, and a net increase of 71,000 people from the balance of births and deaths.

The GLA’s central projection assumes that international migration will be suppressed for the period to 2022, but will then bounce back to average 95,000 (net) every year. The GLA’s expert panel felt that on balance, future reductions in migration are more likely than increases. However, they advised against discounting the possibility of higher levels of international migration, pointing to the resilience of international migration; the possibility that new immigration rules may result in foreign nationals settling in London for longer, and potential reductions in emigration rates of UK nationals in post-Brexit Europe.. The projections also suggest that net domestic migration to the rest of the UK will return to around 100,000 per year by 2030. So most of the projected growth will be fuelled by resurgent natural change (births minus deaths), which has fallen since 2010 but is forecast to stabilise at around 60,000 per year. London will continue to see a rapid churn in population, but its growth will be fuelled from within.

Similarly, the GLA project continued economic growth over the longer term. Their economic projections anticipate contraction and jobs losses in 2021, followed by recovery in 2022, with economic output (GVA) exceeding the 2019 peak by 2022, and the number of jobs in 2022 just reaching the peak of three years earlier. Beyond that, the implication of GLA and other forecasters’ cyclical and trend analyses is for the London economy to resume previous levels of growth, both in output, and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, employment.

How credible is this? London’s position as a leading global city has taken a hit from Brexit and the UK’s management of coronavirus, but the city is still in a potentially strong position, with strengths in tech, green innovation, financial and business services, education, arts and culture. London needs to remain open and inviting, through immigration policy but also through nurturing and restoring its wounded cultural and hospitality sectors – the “soft power” foundations of its global appeal. The UK as a whole will continue to need London, as a driver of economic growth, for its fiscal contribution and as its gateway to the world. Brexit, and the UK’s potential isolation outside the major trading and economic blocs, makes London’s role more rather than less important.

How much does the government understand this, and will it commit to the infrastructure and other support needed for London to continue to grow? The signals are mixed: national planning policy is now focused on concentrating growth in cities, and the government’s latest algorithm envisages London building more than 90,000 homes every year – many more than the Mayor’s London Plan proposes, the GLA’s projections would imply, or that London is actually building at the moment.

Given this expectation, and the economic importance of London and South East, you would expect the government to want to invest in the capital’s infrastructure. But worryingly, in the National Infrastructure Review last November, the government suspended support for Crossrail 2, the next phase of major transport infrastructure investment in London, beyond safeguarding work. As Alex Jan has commented, Crossrail 2 is “pretty integral” to the London Plan, though all major infrastructure projects have their ups and downs – Crossrail 1 was first mooted in the 1970s, with roots in the Abercrombie Plan of 1944. Government commitment to “levelling up” regional imbalances in the UK is welcome, but this should not happen by starving the capital of much-needed public investment.

We will not know for some time whether short-term population and economic decline are temporary diversions or longer-term redirections of London’s future. We do not know whether 700,000 people really have left London over the last year, or whether and how quickly they may come back. And we do not known how far recovery from the crisis could see some rebalancing of activity within London and the wider South East. We know, in short, that there are still a lot of unknowns.

But public policy should shape the future rather than just responding to it (a core proposition of Centre for London’s London Futures programme), and governments should be wary of drawing conclusions about long-term trends from short-term disruptions. London’s potential for growth should be nurtured so that the city can work better for all its current citizens, as well as the two million more who could arrive in the next 30 years, and so that the capital can support recovery across the UK.

Reheating London’s hospitality industry

 [First published in OnLondon, 29 December 2020]

After Boris Johnson’s election victory in December 2019, some of his supporters heralded the approach of another “Roaring Twenties”. 

With hindsight, it was an unfortunate analogy, for the 1920s boom followed the devastation of World War I and an influenza pandemic that killed 50 million people worldwide. But the comparison has stuck, and as we look nervously but hopefully into 2021, even sober-minded think tanks such as the Resolution Foundation are deploying it, predicting a boom in deferred expenditure, particularly in the hospitality sector, once vaccines have enabled social mixing to return to something like normal.

Anecdote bears this out, as those friends who are still in work discuss which restaurants and bars they will visit – we are all planning to get “lit up in London”. But the capital’s hospitality sector is a lot more than the subject of lockdown fantasies. Over the last ten years, employment in the sector has grown by 40%, which is faster than any other apart from professional services, IT and communications. 

This growth is driven by and supports London’s global role. Spending by overseas visitors forms a major chunk of London’s exports, and it is London’s cultural offer – from nightlife to galleries to restaurants – that helps the city to retain its position at the top of global surveys, such as this year’s Global Power City Index, published by Tokyo’s Mori Memorial Foundation. Hospitality isn’t the froth on the top of “serious” sectors, such as financial and business services. It is foundational to them.

And as we lose the advantages of access to the European Single Market, these “soft power” assets will assume ever more importance in bringing the world to London, enabling us to play our part in “Global Britain” – another phrase that has taken a battering in this year of mutating viruses, lockdowns and travel bans.

But hospitality has been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. The sector accounts for around 25% of current furloughs (compared to less than 8% of jobs), and has seen the most substantial job losses of any industry. And the outlook is grim: recent national surveys suggest that almost 30% of pubs and bars are pessimistic about surviving into the spring. London’s pubs and restaurants had a particularly tough year, with visits to the city centre dramatically reduced even during the summer period of relaxed restrictions.

As ever, the situation is complicated by Brexit. London’s hospitality sector is particularly reliant on foreign workers, with overseas nationals comprising around 50 per cent of the workforce. New immigration rules will make it far harder to employ foreign nationals in hospitality. Managers and a few specialist roles such as chefs are classified as “skilled” and therefore eligible for work visas but, bar staff, waiters, baristas and other hotel and kitchen staff are not.

Furthermore, the coronavirus crisis appears to have triggered the type of exodus that many were predicting (but failed to materialise) after the EU referendum in 2016. More than 700,000 people born outside the UK (around 500,000 from the EU) left employment between the first and third quarters of this year, according government surveys. Most appear to have left the country (or at least the survey sample) entirely. They may be biding their time until London re-opens, or they may stay away.

So, come the great unlocking, London’s hospitality sector may be in the unhappy situation of experiencing business closures and labour shortages at the same time – just as the city is trying to renew its global appeal. There may be an opportunity here for unemployed young Londoners to pick up the slack. But that is likely to put – long overdue – upwards pressure on wages and working conditions, which may in turn threaten the viability of pubs and restaurants facing higher food costs and already financially scarred by the coronavirus winter.

London will re-open, and its restaurants and bars will once again buzz with life, as they fill with people from across the city, the nation and the world, underpinning London’s status as a global meeting place. But recovery will be tough for the hospitality sector, and it could need almost as much support as during the long winter of coronavirus closures.

Can the Centre hold?

 [Published by Centre for London, 9 July 2020]

Central London can seem curiously friendless in political debates – too metropolitan for national politicians but not resident-focused enough for local and regional authorities. But Central London’s economic recovery is essential to the capital and the UK as a whole, and it is currently exposed to a unique and highly toxic cocktail of risks.

London’s Central Activities Zone (the core commercial and office districts of the West End, the City and their fringes) makes an outsized contribution to the national economy: recent Centre for London research indicated that it generated 10 per cent of national economic output in an area covering just two per cent of London.

But the area’s importance extends beyond the dry data of economic output. Central London is the anchor of the UK’s tourist industry, and the epicentre of the mix of shops, restaurants, museums, clubs, bars, universities and theatres that sustains the UK’s soft power, drawing international students, businesses and workers year after year. Global London is the heartland of Global Britain.

In previous crises, central London has sometimes suffered, but bounced back. In the early 1990s recession, inner London lost manufacturing and manual jobs and saw sharp rises in unemployment, but by the middle of the decade, the service sectors were growing in compensation, with vacant commercial premises in areas like Shoreditch taken over by a new generation of start-ups. And after 2009 employment growth hardly faltered, as central London’s economy was buoyed by quantitative easing and international investment, and emerging sectors such as cultural industries and fintech began to grow as traditional financial services employment stalled. This resilience has bred resentment in other parts of the UK – some of it perhaps justified – but London’s success as the UK’s gateway to the world has been a force for good.

This time it could be different. London’s city centre emptied out faster and deeper than other UK urban centres when lockdown started at the end of March, partly reflecting the higher proportion of jobs – predominantly higher paid professional and office worker jobs – that could be undertaken from home. Lower paid workers in hospitality and retail also stayed home, but mainly on furlough in the short term – many will be wondering if they have jobs to return to. Anyone who has been into central London recently will have noticed how empty its streets remain, while life returns to more residential neighbourhoods.

The question of how many workers will come back to central London offices, and how quickly, is still an open one. For every elegy to the end of the office, there is an equally confident hymn to the social and productivity benefits of teams working in the same place, the spillover and innovation benefits nurtured by proximity. But it does seem that the lure of central locations may be diminished for some employers.

This storm might be weathered on its own, but combining a reduction in office workforce, with a sharp slowdown in domestic and international tourism, and a public transport system with heavily constrained capacity could be deeply damaging. Central London needs people, the throng of workers, shoppers, residents and tourists. Its retail, hospitality and cultural industries serve and entertain the world; they cannot survive on the area’s 330,000 residents alone. The tax breaks and discounts announced by the Chancellor yesterday may be a boost to neighbourhood pubs, cafés and restaurants across London, but they won’t bring crowds back to Zone 1 on their own.

Weakening central London’s visitor and commuter economy as a result of short-term shutdowns and slow resurgence over the coming months could store up deeper problems in the future, permanently undermining London’s soft power and global reach – the things that bring students, tourists and investors to the UK in the first place – as well as endangering the viability of the district that accommodates 40 per cent of London’s jobs.

So central London is particularly at risk, and damage to its economy could reverberate across the country. What can be done?

The first thing is to enable people to get back to central London as quickly as is compatible with managing the risks of coronavirus resurgence. At the height of the epidemic, Londoners were told to stay away from public transport, and that message has struck home. Now that face masks are mandatory, and infection rates much lower, a cautious return to public transport should be encouraged – not least as evidence from international studies and modelling of the spread of the virus in London in March indicate that public transport is not a major source of outbreaks. As Andrew Adonis has suggested, staggered working hours, clarity on cleaning standards and a change of messaging from the Mayor could all help bring people back into central London.

Getting people back on the tubes and buses will help, but will not be enough to make up for the loss of tourism and potential loss of workforce. It is likely that more targeted help will be needed, in particular for theatres, gig venues and other performance spaces. The West End accounts for 60 per cent of annual revenues for UK theatres, so allowing it to wither would be a body blow to the industry nationally.

The government’s new support package will help support cultural institutions while live performance is limited, but distributing cultural vouchers across the country could also play a part once theatres and other venues start to re-open (perhaps following the approach being tried out by Andrew Lloyd Webber). ‘Helicopter culture’ would be a gift in tough times to UK audiences, while drawing people back into city centres across the country, where attending a play or performance could be accompanied by food, drink and even shopping.

A return to public transport and support for entertainment might help sustain London’s centre as the virus recedes and tourism revives, but there will inevitably be shops, cafés and pubs that fail, and office space that is surrendered as firms reconsider their spatial needs and their employees’ appetite for remote working. There may be a case for allowing some growth in residential development: central London’s residential population has grown sharply in recent years but is still way below what it was in the 1930s. However, all the logic of business clustering, and the sunk costs of decades of infrastructure investment, argues that London should sustain a strong business core.

Rather than surrendering London’s business core, boroughs, the Mayor and government should work together on incentives to enable new enterprises to flourish, as they did in previous recessions. While rents are falling – and being linked to turnover in many cases – business rates are anchored to rental values from 2015 and so remain prohibitively high in many parts of central London. In the long term, business rates need reform, but in the short term, tax breaks for start-ups could include business rate discounts or holidays, and capital allowances for investment in office and shop fit-outs – an enterprise zone for the city centre.

Getting cross about central London – the crowds, the tourists, the prices, the pollution, the bustle – is a pastime that most Londoners can normally share with people across the country. But diluting its punchy and sometimes chaotic vitality would be a tragedy for the whole nation. London will bounce back in the long term, but may need some help over coming months as it faces a perfect storm of challenges.

Having doubts about density

 [Published by Centre for London, 29 June 2020]

I must admit, I have been having doubts about density in recent weeks. Such is the strength of belief in the high-density compact city model of urban living, that its denial feels like a crisis of faith. But coronavirus – and more importantly the changes to our lives that coronavirus has accelerated – are making me think again.

The argument for density is powerfully made, from a social, environmental and economic perspective. The sprawling suburbs that rising car use enabled in the mid 20th century were hugely damaging in terms of air quality, carbon emissions and habitat destruction, their gridlocked freeways a reminder that the lure of the open road quickly evaporates when millions of people want to travel to the same destination at the same time, in the least efficient way possible.

Suburban sprawl also disrupted social bonds, as documented by scholars like Michael Young in East London. People retreated from a sense of community to lifestyles that prioritised the individual or the nuclear family, with ever weaker social ties (the ’bowling alone’ phenomenon). Sprawl became a self-fulfilling prophecy: without density of population, there was not the critical mass to sustain neighbourhood shops, cafes, public services and transport systems. These things all became the object of car journeys, and parking assumed priority over proximity in a thousand out-of-town retail and leisure centres.

These ruinous impacts of sprawl were well documented in the paradigm-shifting work of the Urban Task Force in the UK, and in the rise of New Urbanism across the world. Gradually residents started returning to city centres (big businesses had never really moved out, following their own logic of agglomeration), drawn by the lure of easier commutes, improving public services, and the resurgent hum of metropolitan life. In central London, the population grew by more than 25 per cent in the seven years to 2018. And across central and inner London, towering residential blocks have sprung up, often lumpily incongruous with their more modestly sized neighbours.

But you have to ask, who is going to want to live in these towers now? As London recovers, some of the benefits of centrality will be reinforced; the ability to walk or cycle to work, for example, will enable urbanites to bypass constrained public transport. But trading space for proximity will seem less of a good deal than it was. Restaurants and bars will struggle, and some may never reopen; online shopping could boom at the expense of already struggling city centre shops; and workplaces may become places that are used intermittently, rather than for the standard nine-to-five (or five-to-nine, depending on your business) daily grind.

At the same time, connectivity is being transformed. As the electricity supply becomes less and less dependent on carbon fuels, electric vehicles and more environmentally-friendly hybrids such as electric bikes will allow movement without wrecking the planet, and online technologies from Zoom to Spotify will shift the focus from moving people and products through physical space to moving bits of data through networks. We have not yet experienced the death of distance that was much vaunted at the dawn of the internet age, but we may now be seeing the decarbonisation of distance.

So coming out the crisis, citizens may see a weaker case for high-density urban living, and fewer downsides to the alternatives. This is not to advocate a return to sprawl, or even to argue that it is an inevitable outcome, but for more dispersed urban density. People value the buzz of urban life, but perhaps they would rather enjoy it from a house with a small garden, rather than from a meanly proportioned flat with a Lilliputian balcony. Perhaps suburbs could provide the “best of the city and the best of the countryside” once promised by the garden city movement.

And London looks well placed to prosper in this new age of sustainable suburban living, as a city in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of urban density. The city is sometimes described as ‘low density’, and it is when compared to Barcelona or Manhattan. But London is actually just as dense as Paris, and significantly denser than New York (wider urban area), even though its peak density is lower than both (see Table 1). That is to say, it may not be as dense in the centre as those cities, but it doesn’t sprawl so much on the edge either.

Table 1: Density of major cities compared to London (Source: 2015 figures)

New York London Paris Barcelona
Overall density (000s pop/sq km) 3.4 5.2 5.2 6.4
Peak (000s pop/sq km) 56.3 25.5 45.2 26.8

London’s miles of terraced Victorian houses actually offer pretty high densities, as well as private outdoor space for residents and the potential to support schools and other services within a fifteen-minute walk (particularly if the daytime population grows with more home working).

So London and other big cities may face a choice, and sooner than they think. Some affluent residents may start to turn their back on hyper dense city centre locations (maybe enabling a wider variety of residents to move in, including more young people). The density doubters will then have a choice; whether to move right out of the city, or whether to put down their roots within a few miles.

Many of London’s suburbs have seen a gradual decline in recent years, as employment, services and richer residents have been drawn to the city centre, but this could be an opportunity for reinvention. With investment and the right planning policies, they could return to favour, offering enough density to thrive, but enough space to breathe.

Centralised localism won’t control the virus

[Published by OnLondon, 16 May 2020]

Coronavirus is a global pandemic formed of myriad localised outbreaks. In the UK it hit London first and hardest, but is now spreading much faster in some other English regions.

The Prime Minister’s speech last Sunday acknowledged this in talking of “monitoring our progress locally, regionally, and nationally”. In a press conference the following day, he elaborated: “You’ve got to respect local issues, local flare-ups, local problems and part of the solution is responding in a particular part of the country, which we detect with our Covid Alert system, then we will be firefighting, doing whack-a-mole as that issue arises.” And by the end of the week, there seemed to be some consideration within government that different infection speeds in different places might mean relaxation of lockdown at different rates.

But all this mole-whacking and unlocking seems to be entirely centralised. References to local councils in the detailed recovery plan were to an auxiliary role – in supporting care homes, ensuring the distribution of supplies to vulnerable people, in widening pavements, and in playing a part in contact tracing.

In the first phase of the epidemic, when a blanket nationwide lockdown was introduced, it was natural for this to be led from Westminster. But as spats with the Welsh and Scottish government last weekend indicate, the UK government is happy with devolution as long as devolved administrations fall in behind Downing Street’s strictures. So even as a more localised approach is taken, there is no suggestion it will be led from anywhere beyond SW1.

Other European countries are already taking a more devolved approach. As France and Italy have emerged from lockdown, decision-making on local restrictions has been devolved, with boundaries set centrally. In France, the Mayors of individual départements have different rights to open and close schools, beaches and so on, depending on whether their region has been coded as “red” or “green” by the national government (and in consultation with the local “prefects” who represent central government). In the capital city region of Ile de France, for example, the regional administration has required mask-wearing on public transport, and has stipulated that those travelling at rush hour have an authorisation signed by their employer.

In Italy, a deal brokered between ministers and local politicians has allowed each of the country’s 20 regions to set their own course out of lockdown, leading to an accelerated re-opening of bars and restaurants in some regions.

Whether a more responsive localised approach is worth some erosion of national solidarity and clarity can be debated. I think it is, but there are plenty who would disagree – the differing approaches adopted in Scotland and Wales have already been controversial.

However, it does seem blinkered to have a localised system of monitoring, clamping down on outbreaks and easing restrictions without a role for local or regional government. England’s metro mayors have expressed concern about a lack of engagement from government, and have asked for representation, alongside the Mayor of London and Scottish and Welsh leaders, at Cobra meetings, but to date the planning of England’s more locally sensitised strategy to “control the virus” seems to be something done to rather than with local leaders.

Stand back, make room

 [Published by OnLondon and Centre for London, 12 May 2020]

London has been at the forefront of the UK’s Covid-19 epidemic. Cases and deaths rose fast and peaked early in the capital. But the city seems to have adapted quickly to lockdown and continuing recruitment activity shows some of the resilience the capital demonstrated after the financial crisis of 2008. And, after the wave of infections hit London first, it now seems to be retreating quickest, with new cases being identified at half the rate of some UK regions.

But what comes next could be a lot tougher. Having plunged much of day-to-day life into the deep freeze, the government is seeking a way to defrost it, of getting the country back to work. The much-debated change in government messaging gives an indication of the direction of change: from an unambiguous instruction to stay at home, to a cautious emergence.

As London’s economy tentatively tries to get back on its feet, some of its gaps and inequities will start to show through. During the crisis, working from home has been an inconvenience for workers like me, whose jobs involve talking, reading, writing and analysing. For other workers, such remote working is impossible. Some have been put at risk by continuing to work, while others have been furloughed. For those people to go back to work safely, they will have to travel.

And that’s where the problem is. From his experience as the Mayor of London, the Prime Minister will know that telling people to “avoid public transport if at all possible” is a really tall order in the capital. London’s commuters are heavily dependent on public transport: 46 per cent of London’s workers use trains, light rail or the Tube to get to work, and a further 12 per cent use buses, compared to around three per cent and six per cent respectively for the rest of Great Britain.

Avoiding public transport means that almost 60 per cent of London’s workers have to find an alternative way to work. Even if Tube, rail and buses are operating at around 15 per cent capacity, as some estimates suggest, 2.5 million London commuters will be displaced.

Some of the slack can be taken up by an increase in walking and cycling, which together account for around 14 per cent of London commutes. There is certainly a strong argument for this, for re-allocation of road space to encourage new cyclists (though it is not clear whether the funding support announced by Grant Shapps on Friday will be deployed in the capital), and for a more rapid roll-out of new rules for e-scooters.

But cycling would need to increase almost tenfold to replace the lost public transport capacity. Data from the 2011 census indicated the average London commuting distance was more than 11 miles (and is likely to be higher for many rail and Tube commuters), so there are a limited number of journeys where cycling will be a viable option – particularly for those new to the saddle and to London’s traffic.

There may be some increase in car-based commuting in the short-term, but this is not what any policy-makers want. It would not only unpick the progress made on air quality and carbon emissions in recent years, but also quite quickly result in gridlock – especially as roads are being remodelled to prioritise walking and cycling. In any case, there simply aren’t the workplace parking spaces in Central London for any mass switch.

So some form of “demand management” (a phrase heavily used when trying to limit travel during the London Olympics) will be needed, if London’s economy is to return to anything like normal. Changing work patterns will be part of this, and may need extensions of the night tube and some relaxation of current regulations on deliveries, as London shifts further towards becoming a 24-hour city.

But, as London rebuilds public transport capacity and public confidence, we may also need to prioritise some workers over others. The capital has been helped to date by the fact that many of us can work remotely. Given the risk of overwhelming the transport system, those who can do so should perhaps hold back from using public transport to get to work, however much we long for the social interactions that make the city what it is.

The Tube has been kept running for essential workers during the crisis. As the crisis eases, this priority should be extended to people who work in shops, factories, construction sites, and workshops – those who need to have access to their workplaces and to be able to travel to them safely.

You could even see permits to travel introduced, but such a system would be intrusive, complex and hard to enforce. However, the successful implementation of the government’s lockdown measures has shown that limiting use of the Tube can be self-policing. To enable essential workers to reach their destinations safely, perhaps those of us who trade in words, calculations and conversations should stand back and wait our turn.

Missing crowds still

[First used as a monologue script for OnLondon, broadcast in April 2020]

Early morning on Hove seafront, and the broad walkway is dotted with dog-walkers, joggers, and couples taking a stroll in the morning sun. Everybody is complying with the two metre rule, more or less, setting and adjusting their courses to minimise proximity. Occasionally someone stops dead, or abruptly switches direction, and ten others carefully re-order their routing to respond to the change.

It is a stately but slightly stuffy sight, and I suddenly know what it reminds me of – a slow-motion, spatially exploded version of Victoria Station at rush hour. Here on the coast people frown if they see someone within four feet of them; there workers, tourists and day-trippers would surge simultaneously in every direction, somehow managing to avoid each other by inches or even millimetres, marking near misses and glancing collisions with apologetic smiles.

And it’s then I realise how much I miss London’s crowds, the ebb and flow of the city’s life. Cities are at once alienating and intimate. When I visited London as a child, I found the relentless busy-ness and pace of the city distressing, even exhausting. When I moved to London, I made my peace with the throng, learning to find refuge from and even within the most crowded places. Now that I have all the calm that I could need, it is those crowds that I find myself missing.

Peter Ackroyd devotes a whole section of his London biography to the mob, treating it as an essential element of the city. “The crowd”, he writes, “is not a single entity manifesting itself on particular occasions, but the actual condition of London itself.” The courteous bustle of London’s concourses is in some ways far removed the unruly mobs that Ackroyd records surging through the capital’s streets, their polar opposite even. In other ways, however, the crowd is the mob’s politely evolved descendant, a hivemind bent on efficient movement and orderly function, not on chaos and destruction.

Cities are masterclasses in this type of subconscious collaboration. Every day, millions of people displace themselves, barely acknowledging each other’s presence, but choreographing their movements nonetheless, in the tango of a crowded station concourse, the waltz of a busy bar, the dos-a-dos of letting the passengers off the train first.

When this crisis passes, as it will, London will begin to buzz with life again. But there may be a lingering loss of ease with the intimacy of strangers. None of us quite enjoyed the experience of cramming cheek-to-cheek on the tube, but it was treated as a brief inconvenience, not as a health hazard or a micro-aggression.

London may take some time to get close again.

Could the pandemic revitalise devolution debates

 [Published by Centre for London, 27 April 2020]

Days during the pandemic have a certain rhythm, whether mid-week or during what we used to call ‘the weekend’. After the daily roll call of cases and fatalities, a government minister appears at a press conference to give the same virtual answers to the same virtual questions. Have we reached a peak? Is there enough personal protective equipment? How do we get out of this?

The charts and graphs tame the horror of deaths with a sense of rationality, and a wood panelled conference room can for a moment look like the command and control centre of a clearly-directed ‘war effort’ battle against an unseen enemy.

It is an illusion – a necessary and comforting illusion perhaps, but no more real for that, despite the wide range of powers granted to the government by the Coronavirus Act. And we should not be clinging to that illusion when we seek to learn lessons from the crisis.

While ministers pronounce targets and exhort compliance, hundreds of public sector workers across the country are making decisions and joining forces to respond to surges of infection as the spread across the country.

Again and again in recent weeks, I have heard similar stories – that measures that used to take months can now be achieved in days or hours, that proceduralism and protectiveness have gone out of the window, that public servants are taking action on the basis that “asking forgiveness is easier than asking permission.”

Officials talk of the value of a sense of shared endeavour and objectives, and health service managers distinguish centralised strategy and allocation of resources from localised decision-making and leadership.

This breathless rush of innovation and adaptation has lessons for how we think about public services coming out of the crisis. In particular, it should revitalise longer-term debates on devolution, and the new constitutional settlement that the country will need when both Brexit and COVID-19 are under control.

Creating tailored local services

Advocates of devolution sometimes make the case in the abstract, simply asserting but local is better. At one level this is surely true: power and decisions should be made as close to citizens and communities as is compatible with national fairness. This is what the European Union refers to the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ (though one that the European Commission is often accused of abusing).

But there’s more to it than that. A second argument for devolution is the argument for particularity – for enabling local services to be tailored to local circumstances. In London, local authorities have worked together to help hospitals clear space in critical care wards, to identify and find hotel rooms for homeless and other vulnerable people, to get food and PPE where they are most needed, and to coordinate volunteer services. All these tasks have depended on detailed local knowledge – of communities and resources, assets and risks – that could never be found in Whitehall.

Allied to this is an argument for integration – enabling local services to complement rather than conflict with each other. Citizens may need support from housing, social care, health services, education, probation, policing, and any number of other services. If these can be brought together, the results should not just be more efficient, but also more responsive to the needs of people and communities. This is never more true than at a time of crisis, when the commitment to deliver results can overcome organisational boundaries. But there is a risk of retreat when the crisis passes.

There is a flipside to all these arguments. Some point out that the centralised direction of the NHS has helped it cope better than Italy’s more fragmented health care system. Locally tailored services can easily look like a ‘postcode lottery’, and incompetently run localised services are no more accountable or efficient than their national counterparts. Even federalised countries like Germany have seen some controversy over regionally-varying lockdown regulations, though the country’s dispersed public health lab capacity has been seen as one of its success factors.

But the crisis has shown what can be done, and in its aftermath, we need a more rational debate about the balance between national standards and local innovation, between centralised strategy and operational autonomy, and between the myths of control and the reality of adaptation.

Housing in a time of coronavirus

[First published by Centre for London, 6 April 2020]
In 2006, the City of Sao Paulo adopted the Cidade Limpia(“clean city”) statute, banning the billboard advertising that lined the city’s highways. Citizens and visitors alike saw a new city, a city of stark concrete structures and even starker social divisions. The favelas, slums and squatted buildings that had been shrouded by advertising were made unavoidably visible.
Coronavirus may be having a similar impact for London. The city has been in the front line of infection. On 20 March, the capital had just under half of all reported cases in England, though that proportion had fallen to around a third two weeks later. Even to enthusiastic advocates of dense urban living, what once looked like creative proximity and intermingling now looks risky verging on toxic.
But density has different aspects and different impacts. If the density of connections, and of social and economic life – in crowded offices, pubs and tube trains – helped the virus to race round London in the middle of March, it is the density of living space that has made the government’s lockdown rules tough for many Londoners since then. The disease has shone a spotlight on the increasingly unequal distribution of space in the city.
One way to look at this is the ratio of people to homes.  According to the Greater London Authority’s Housing in London 2019 data compendium, this has been falling for the last 30 years across England, reflecting later marriage and more people living alone at the end of their lives. London bucks the trend: the number of people per dwelling has increased from around 2.3 to 2.5 since the early 1990s. London does have some larger families, but a larger element of this growth can be seen as ‘supressed household formation’ – people continuing to live with their parents, or in shared houses and flats, when they would rather be on their own or with a partner.
Measures of overcrowding using the ‘bedroom standard’ (essentially a room for each couple or adult, with some sharing for children) tell a similar story: overcrowding has increased over the past twenty years, but this increase has been most concentrated in private rented accommodation (where 12 per cent of households were overcrowded in 2017/18 against five per cent in 1995/96), and in social rented housing where levels rose from 11 to 15 per cent. The opposite trend is visible for home-owners: over the same period, the proportion of owner-occupied households with two or more spare bedrooms has risen from 33 to 42 per cent.
Many commentators – including me, I suspect – have talked of how younger Londoners are happy to trade space for proximity to the city centre, of how pubs and parks, cafes and restaurants are the living rooms for a new generation. Why yearn for a private garden, when you have Hampstead Heath or London Fields on your doorstep? This ‘trade-off’ theory of urban living is probably true, or it probably was until self-isolation locked young Londoners in homes where every possible nook is being used as a bedroom – let alone the 58,000 households (two thirds of the English total) in cramped temporary accommodation.
London has great public spaces, the convivial tableaux of park, pub and street food market, but if the crisis has shone a light on London’s crowding problems, it may also make people rethink their trade-offs, and perhaps value private space more. The legacy growth in home working may fuel demand for homes with more spare rooms. Building taller and denser around outer London town centres may look like a more civilised way to accommodate growth than squeezing more and more renters into terraced houses designed for families. We should maybe start to worry less about the air space that buildings occupy, and more about the internal spaces they offer.
Coming out of the pandemic, the once triumphant paradigm of dense city living may find itself on the back foot. We may even see a drift from the city to smaller towns and villages. City living will have to remind the world of its benefits – as powerful now as ever – of the cultural and social life it can foster, of the environmental advantages and economic opportunities that it offers. But it will also need to show that it can be resilient to the next shock, that it can offer decent accommodation with space for seclusion as well as sociability to all its citizens.