When tube lines go to war, one is all that you can score

The role of Parliamentary Assistant for the London Underground (Green Park) Bill sounded pretty exciting when the temping agency suggested it to me. Newly arrived in London at the height of the 1990s recession, I needed work and entertained daydreams of passing notes to MPs, briefing journalists and crafting ingenious arguments about, er, something to do with extending the Jubilee Line?

The Sisyphean reality – photocopying and bundling documents, then unbundling and shredding them a few days later – was a bit less glamorous. It was autumn 1993 and the Bill – the last piece of enabling legislation for the Jubilee Line extension (JLE) – was already in its last stages. Construction contracts had been let, and the parliamentary team started to disperse. 

Many of them moved round the corner to Dacre Street to work on Crossrail, which was the next big transport project. Or at least it was until May the following year, when a House of Commons committee stopped the bill process dead in its tracks. What I didn’t realise at the time was how intense competition had been between the JLE and Crossrail, and how significant this competition and its outcome would be for London’s evolution in the decades that followed. 

Both Crossrail and the JLE can trace their lineage back to the 1970s or beyond, but gathered momentum in the late 1980s, those strange years when London lost its metropolitan government yet saw resurgent economic growth and the first signs of population recovery after 50 years of decline. Secretary of State Paul Channon’s foreword to the Central London Rail Study, published in January 1989, referred to the capital’s economic growth “putting severe strains on London’s transport system”. The study proposed an east-west ‘Crossrail’ (as well as alternative Chelsea-Hackney and Victoria-Euston-Kings Cross options), and detailed project planning was given the go-ahead the following year. 

But something was stirring in the east. In 1981 Michael Heseltine, Secretary of State for the Environment (which then included local government and urban policy), had established the London Docklands Development Corporation to find new uses for the swathes of land left derelict by the closure of east London’s docks. Rail and road infrastructure – including the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) – had been an early priority, based on the loose expectation that the docks would be redeveloped for a mixture of housing and light industry.

All that changed in 1984 when American banker Michael von Clemm visited Canary Wharf. Von Clemm was looking for food preparation units for Roux Brothers Restaurants, in which he was an investor, but returned to his offices at Credit Suisse First Boston to propose that the bank could build offices there rather than continuing to haggle over floor space with the deeply conservative City of London Corporation. Michael Cassidy, the City’s then chair of policy and resources, recalls von Clemm taking him to the site and saying, “I’m going to build my office here, and I’m going to blame you – the City – for making me do it.”

A succession of plans, changes of ownership and bankruptcies followed, but in 1987 Olympia and York (O&Y), the Canadian developers of Battery Park City in New York, signed a development deal to build 12 million square feet of offices at Canary Wharf. This would mean 50,000 daily commuters, way beyond the DLR’s capacity, so O&Y promised to build a new railway line – unofficially and unfortunately known as the Canaryloo Line – to run from Waterloo through Canary Wharf to Greenwich. 

Margaret Thatcher’s government liked the entrepreneurial spirit of the proposal, but Department for Transport officials were nervous of freelancing rail schemes, so a separate East London Rail Study was commissioned to review options for improving access to Canary Wharf. It reported in July 1989 and recommended that the Jubilee Line be extended via Canary Wharf and North Greenwich to Stratford. The total cost would be around £1 billion, of which O&Y would pay the £400 million they had earmarked for their own project.

By summer 1989, therefore, two rail mega-projects were eyeing each other uneasily on the starting blocks. The government was committed to maximising private sector contributions to both, which gave the JLE an advantage, as private finance was already committed to it. So the JLE overtook its venerable competitor in securing parliamentary approval: the main bill was introduced into Parliament in late 1989 and received royal assent in March 1992, while the Crossrail Bill did not have its first reading until November 1991.

Just as many in the City saw Canary Wharf as a threat to their pre-eminence as a financial centre, the JLE’s rapid parliamentary process alarmed many of Crossrail’s supporters – particularly central London property companies such as Hammerson, Land Securities and Grosvenor – which feared that the usurper railway would boost Canary Wharf at the expense of the City. As the 1992 general election approached and the UK slipped into recession, a new coalition began to assemble, galvanised by the need to prevent Crossrail being sidelined.

This coalition, led by Sir Allen Sheppard of leisure conglomerate Grand Metropolitan, was formally launched after the election as London First. Robert Gordon Clark, who became London First’s head of communications the following year, says their primary focus on lobbying for Crossrail to be built either ahead of or alongside the JLE led one property journalist to rename them “London First, Docklands Second”. 

But by then, the JLE had problems of its own. The global recession had hit O&Y’s north American holdings hard, and in May 1992 its creditor banks pushed the company into administration. The JLE  had received royal assent but its funding package had collapsed. “I had to work very, very hard to get the Jubilee Line extension underway, because at the time the Treasury just didn’t want it. We were in recession and they were fighting very hard to avoid any capital expenditure,” recalls Steve Norris, who, after the election, was appointed minister for transport in London. 

The Treasury insisted that the banks who now owned Canary Wharf maintained O&Y’s £400 million commitment, perhaps hoping this would kill the scheme off but, as Norris observes, funding the JLE was the only way for the banks to recover their losses: “Their property in Canary Wharf had virtually negative value at that time. With the kind of rents you could get without decent connectivity, the whole thing was a liability not an asset. So all the banks signed up, which made it very difficult for [the Treasury] to refuse. But they were dragged kicking and screaming.”

Lagging two years behind the JLE in Parliament and lacking committed private sector finance in the wake of a recession, Crossrail was more vulnerable. In May 1994, the four-person committee reviewing the Crossrail Bill threw it out. The committee’s issues with the scheme included its lack of connectivity to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, falling Tube usage (which was 20 per cent down on its 1980s peak by 1994), and above all the lack of committed funding from either the Treasury or private finance. 

Transport schemes never quite die, of course, so Crossrail was sent into a limbo of new designs, parliamentary procedures, cost-benefit analyses, studies, spending reviews, business cases and consultations. London First kept the flame alive, particularly when Labour came to national power in 1997 followed by London’s newly-elected Mayor Ken Livingstone worked closely with both the City and Canary Wharf to make the case for the scheme, which broke ground in May 2009.

As the Elizabeth Line finally opens, it feels like closure for this chapter of London’s history, even if Crossrail 2 (the old Chelsea-Hackney line) is receding into the future. The JLE stole a march on Crossrail by having a single private sector stakeholder with deep pockets, and by being first out of the parliamentary stocks (though the delivery of the scheme was beset by overruns and delays). It shouldn’t be this way, but sometimes being first is as important as being best. 

But it is hard to argue that the Jubilee Line extension should have been ditched. Without it, Canary Wharf’s development would have been blighted and London’s development would have been dramatically altered: no second financial centre, no Millennium Dome on the heavily polluted Greenwich Peninsula and maybe no Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford. By accident and design, the JLE was transformational. Perhaps Crossrail would have gone ahead more quickly without it, and perhaps it would have been completed in time for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. But, given the constraints on public spending in the 1990s, perhaps not.

The most enduring legacy of the rivalry between these rail schemes was the galvanising effect they had on London’s businesses and local authorities, impressing on them the urgency of coming together to lobby for the capital’s needs – including for the introduction of a directly elected Mayor, later championed by London First. It is a coalition that still needs to speak for London today.

First published by OnLondon.

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.

Living in The City

It is an unlikely proposition on the face of it – a new block to house 644 students nestled among the polished steel and plate glass of corporate lawyers’ and consultants’ offices on High Holborn, just opposite City Thameslink Station. But this is the planning application the City of London Corporation’s Planning Committee will consider on Tuesday, with officers recommending approval.

Student housing in the heart of the City? Is this a harbinger of changing times – even of decline – as London comes to terms with “life after Covid”?

City of London planning policies, backed by the London Plan, have always been stalwart in defending the Square Mile’s unique mix of “world city” commercial functions. Loss of office floor space, the corporation’s policy says, should be considered only in exceptional circumstances. And the recent boom in privately-developed student housing has been controversial. As this project indicates, it has generated good returns for investors but is often seen as disruptive to neighbourhood life and implicated in gentrification – but, then again, what isn’t? – and has spawned some of London’s ugliest new buildings.

The High Holborn block, designed by Stiff + Trevillion on a site previously occupied by solicitors Hogan Lovells, looks far from ugly in the artist’s impressions (see image). Developers Dominvs Group originally proposed a hotel on the site, but switched to student accommodation as the pandemic laid waste to international tourism. Dominvs are negotiating a deal with the London School of Economics to house their students, and their proposal includes community and cultural spaces on the ground floor and a public roof terrace alongside the student rooms (35 per cent of which will be “affordable”).

Still, the idea of student living in London’s financial district is a far cry from how the Square Mile felt when I first came to the capital almost 30 years ago. Back then the City was a closed-off place – literally so, as the police erected roadblocks (“the ring of steel”) as totemic protection against IRA bombers – showing a rather sombre face to the outside world, however dramatic and lucrative the global trading carried out behind closed doors. By 8.00 pm the pubs had closed and at weekends the narrow empty streets felt post-apocalyptic: beautiful, calm, but also rather eerie.

But the City has been changing. Their Covid recovery plan, which triggered quickly-quashed rumours of widespread conversions of offices to homes, talked of boosting the Square Mile’s visitor economy, of opening up more on evenings and weekends, of being a “City of culture and commerce”.

But this diversification predates the pandemic. Its roots go all the way back to the 1990s, when the construction of Canary Wharf offered an alternative business district (“Manhattan on Thames”) and gave financial institutions a choice. Having survived for more than a millennium the City can tend towards the conservative, but this new challenge forced the ancient institution’s aldermen and common councillors to think again about allowing the skyscrapers that global businesses wanted, but also about what goes on at ground level – what the area offers outside office hours.

The transformation has been gradual but profound, even if it has been accelerated by Covid and the changing dynamics of London’s property markets. You can see it in the expansion of restaurants and bars – hospitality jobs have almost doubled in the past 20 years – in the new shopping centre at One New Change, in plans for the Culture Mile that will stretch from the new Museum of London at Smithfield to the Barbican and in the rapid growth of new sectors such as fintech.

Seen from this perspective, building student housing on High Holborn is a logical progression not a departure. It is the next chapter in a story of reinvention as the City seeks to bring in different types of people, who will bring life to its streets and use its amenities when they might otherwise be quiet.

The planning officers’ report points to the benefits of an “influx of a new demographic of young people” and the proximity to Smithfield, where they will find clubs and bars as well as the new Museum of London. Officers also argue that the loss of office space is marginal (around 8,000 square metres, while 800,000 square metres is in the pipeline) and observes that the engineering complexity of working above and around Thameslink tunnels makes building and pre-letting high quality offices on the site difficult.

London’s Central Activities Zone (CAZ), its retail and hospitality sectors in particular, has had a tough couple of years, as commuters and international tourists stayed away. Cities with more people living in or around the centre have fared better, and GLA-commissioned reports have suggested that a bigger residential population could be part of central London’s future too.

My former colleagues at Centre for London are working on a project to explore where and how this might be realised. This will be a complex process, which will play out differently in different parts of the CAZ. But bringing a few hundred students in to add life, and maybe a bit of mess, to the capital’s ancient heart seems like a good place to start.

First published by OnLondon.

Level 22

While we wait for the forever-delayed Levelling Up White Paper, a “levelling up mindset” is starting to take hold across Whitehall. Just before Christmas newspaper reports suggested that the latest Department for Work and Pensions review would explore whether pensions could be paid earlier in areas with lower life expectancy.

It is an intriguing idea. There are big differences in life expectancy across England. Between 2017 and 2019, a man born in Richmond-upon-Thames could expect to live in good health for nearly 72 years – almost 20 years longer than a man born in Blackburn. A woman born in Wokingham would have a similar advantage over one born in Nottingham.

But it’s a bit odd too. Faced with these yawning inequalities and the worrying fall in healthy life expectancy since 2014-16, you might think that addressing the causes of ill health and early mortality would be the focus of policy, not making sure everyone gets a comparable return on their national insurance contributions.

Allowing people to take their pension earlier in some parts of the country could also have strange consequences. Is a workforce that has been shrunk through early retirement really what economically disadvantaged places need? Would a wave of pension-seekers moving to northern seaside towns really act as a catalyst for revival?

But there is a bigger problem too. Health inequalities can be just as sharp within as between regions or even local authorities: data at “middle super output area” (MSOA) level show that in Kensington & Chelsea there is a 25-year gap in healthy male life expectancy between North Kensington and the area around Sloane Square. If we really want to target earlier retirement dates at those areas where people are likely to have least time to enjoy their pensions, should we not be looking at individual wards and MSOAs rather than large geographical areas?

Of course we won’t be doing that: such a system would be fiendishly complicated and deeply unfair to poorer people living in wealthier neighbourhoods. But it does highlight one problem with the levelling up debate. Health and other aspects of inequality are often presented in terms of geographies because we have good data collected on a geographic basis. But geography is not necessarily the primary issue, as anyone who has seen the wealth of the Vale of York or the poverty in north Westminster will attest.

This is not to say geography is irrelevant: the 2020 Marmot Review of health equity argued that, while life expectancy in richer places was pretty similar across the country, poorer places in London had better life expectancy than poorer places in the north. The review suggested that a mixture of economic and policy factors (particularly the impact of austerity) had hit northern areas particularly hard and had therefore widened the gap since 2010.

But the Marmot analysis is still comparing places – which in London contain a diverse mix of people, and may have become more mixed in recent years – rather than classes of people. Londoners on the poverty line may be only a block away from an artisanal coffee shop, but that may not help their health or other life chances.

There is research indicating links between income and health (for example, people in the poorest 10 per cent of households are ten times more likely to report poor health than people in the richest households), but it is more scanty. Most research on health inequality (and other forms) continues to use place as a proxy for a whole suite of characteristics that may offer or deprive particular people of opportunity.

My hope for 2022 is that we develop a more nuanced discussion of “levelling up”. I think this means southerners acknowledging that there are regional imbalances that do need addressing. I’d suggest that two of these are the need for investment in strategic transport schemes (rather than the apologetic bodge-job of the Integrated Rail Plan) and in research and development. But it also means that we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that every inequality is primarily regional in character when that may simply be a result of the basis on which we collect and publish statistics.

Originally published by OnLondon.

Richard Rogers

“Did you really just tell Richard Rogers to buy you a pint of Guinness? Do you even know who you’re talking to?” my partner Alex said down the phone.

It was 2001, and I was following Richard into the Marquess of Granby, round the corner from the Mayor of London’s temporary offices in Marsham Street. I had just started working with Richard and knew he was an eminent architect, but don’t think I got quite how important he was to a whole generation of architects and designers (of whom Alex is one).

That’s probably a good indication of why I’m not the right person to write an appreciation of his buildings, even though I had rushed to see Centre Pompidou in Paris on a teen holiday with two schoolfriends, a sole moment of cultural enrichment in a week that passed in a haze of gauloises and gut-rot red.  His best buildings are effervescent with ideas, imagination and delight, engaged in playful if sometimes spikey dialogue with their surroundings, and opening their arms wide to users and passers-by. I find them entrancing to this day.

But I’m not going to write about them here. I want to write instead about working with and becoming friends with a truly incredible man.

Nicky Gavron, London Assembly member and tireless advocate for better urban planning, had brought Richard into see the newly-elected Ken Livingstone. Ken waved a copy of Richard’s Urban Task Force report, which had been published the previous year, saying “I want you to do this in London.” I had been working in the Mayor’s Office, and Ken asked me to work with his new Chief Advisor on Architecture and Urbanism (“Big Richard and Little Richard!” he grinned) to make that happen.

Together with Ricky Burdett, Director of LSE Cities, and Gale Valentine, we set up shop as the Architecture + Urbanism Unit (A+UU), recruiting Mark Brearley, John Fannon, Emily Greeves, Jamie Dean, Tobi Goevert and Eleanor Fawcett.  Richard had been an advisor to the Mayor of Barcelona, whose City Architect was a powerful figure overseeing large departments, and saw this as his model. We didn’t have the battalions for that, so had to persuade him to adopt a more subtle approach. We tried to intervene selectively in projects being promoted by the boroughs, Transport for London and the London Development Agency to push them to a better place, “catch and steer” in Mark’s phrase.

Architecture + Urbanism Unit at City Hall in 2002 or 2003. 
Top: Ricky Burdett, Richard Rogers, Gale Valentine, Jamie Dean, Eleanor Fawcett. 
Bottom: me, Mark Brearley, John Fannon.
Architecture + Urbanism Unit at City Hall in 2002 or 2003.
Top: Ricky Burdett, Richard Rogers, Gale Valentine, Jamie Dean, Eleanor Fawcett.
Bottom: me, Mark Brearley, John Fannon.
Photo: Tobias Goevert

Faced with the trundling beasts of public sector procurement, Richard often became frustrated (“Where are my million trees? Where are our 100 Public Spaces?”), exploding that he was wasting his time, or more amiably deciding he had had enough, and we all needed to go out for lunch or to the pub. He took no salary, but came in two days a week, chasing progress but also deploying all his skill and persistence at meetings with the Mayor and other bigwigs – to do deals on how architects would be selected and briefed, on what role design would play in the planning process, on how east London could fulfil its promise.

He stuck with it too, continuing to harry projects long after the rest of us had sounded the retreat, and showing patience and persistence with a bureaucracy that could be unfathomable even to insiders, where other architects would have packed up and retreated to the studio. Quite often, he would ask me to draft him a ‘tough’ (favourite term) note to the Mayor, demanding a project be stopped or an official sacked. As is the way of bureaucracies, these notes would then find their way back down to me from the Mayor’s Office, with a request for me to draft a response for the Mayor to sign off. I could keep these correspondence volleys going for weeks.

From 2004, I became increasingly involved in the London 2012 project, so saw less of Richard for a few years. A characteristic encounter was at the Venice Architecture Biennale, where he was awarded a Golden Lion in 2006. We greeted him in the street, and were scooped up and led to a lunch in a wood-panelled restaurant, down a side street I have never found since.

Flying back that evening, we were on the same plane as Richard and Ruthie, though they were in Business Class. I said hello as we got on, and expected they’d be long gone by the time we got out – that’s why you pay for Business Class after all. Instead, I found them waiting as we came through baggage reclaim, to see if we needed a lift anywhere. When we got into the Addison Lee, Richard told the driver “Chelsea, via Brixton.”  The driver muttered that Brixton wasn’t really on the way to Chelsea. “It is now,” replied Richard with a familiar mix of charm and steel which precluded much argument.

Richard continued to advise Ken, and then Boris Johnson for a couple of years, though took less of an active role as the A+UU morphed into the larger Design for London, headed by Peter Bishop. I think Richard saw his time at the GLA as something of a missed opportunity. We did not build his 100 public spaces or plant his million trees, and City East did not transform Docklands.

This is all true. But, as I said to him, those concepts had a long afterlife, and the cultural changes in how design and planning are done in London government were subtle but profound. The legacy of A+UU is still there in the current Mayor’s Good Growth by Design programme, in his panel of ‘Design Advocates’, in boroughs’ design review panels, in the Public Practice scheme that places newly qualified architects in public sector jobs, and in the inspiration he gave to a generation of planners.

After Richard left the GLA, I started working with him again, intermittently helping him to write articles or letters to the papers protesting against suburban sprawl, against toy town designs, and against the impact of austerity on the public realm – the ‘Continuity Urban Task Force’ as I used to call it. And it was very hard to pay for a meal at the River Café if he spotted us eating there. Richard enjoyed the good life – the River Café, the holidays in Mexico and Italy, opera and art – but he sought to share it as widely as possible, and was genuinely upset and angry when people were denied access to decent housing, food and healthcare.

In 2013, the Royal Academy hosted Richard Rogers: Inside Out, an exhibition that was as much about Richard’s political and civic beliefs as it was about his buildings. This caught the interest of Katy Follain, an editor at Canongate, and she asked Richard to write a book with the same blend of the personal, professional and political. I was trying to find something new to do after ten years on the Olympic treadmill, so was flattered when Richard and Ruthie asked me to help (especially given Canongate’s offer of some real writers).

The experience was hard going to begin with, when some early draft chapters came back covered in red scrawl. Richard’s dyslexia may have meant that he struggled to write long-form prose, but he knew what he wanted and knew what was good. We played around with structure, between timelines and topics, and ended up with a book that started narrow – focusing on a boy’s birth in Florence and his arrival in cold grey England in the 1930s – then widened its scope, using projects as jumping off points for discussions of urban development, public space, politics, inequality.

At first, Richard was reticent about the autobiographical elements; he wanted to look forward not back. But over time, he relaxed into the process, with long interviews where he reflected on his life, influences and ideas, recorded in his house in Chelsea, in his Hammersmith offices, on the terrace of the Tuscan farmhouse he and Ruthie rented every summer. The conversations were inspiring, a comfort to me as my own parents slid into ill-health, and often great fun. One taped interview, on the train back from Manchester after a party conference, starts structured and gradually dissolves into giggles as the free Virgin Rail Rosé takes effect.

As the chapters of A Place for All People were edited and finalised, Richard turned his attention to the design. I think Canongate were used to authors who would turn over a manuscript, fret a bit about the cover photo, then shut up until the proofs arrived. Richard had other ideas. He called up Andy Stevens, the graphic designer who had worked with him and his son Ab on the Inside Out exhibition design, and negotiations with Canongate began (Tracing paper? No. Different coloured papers for different sections? No. Spiral binding? No.) Once a format was agreed, pages would be laid out and reviewed again and again, by Richard, Ruthie and Ab, until Richard was happy with the flow and interplay of the textual and photographic narratives.

And this, I think, was at the heart of Richard’s genius. He was notoriously bad at drawing and struggled with writing, but he had brilliant ideas, acute judgement, and – an overused word but right in his case – a vision for what places and societies could be. He searched out the right partners and collaborators, and used all his powers of charm, persuasion, encouragement and menace to bring out the best in them and make the results of their work together as good as it could be.

Richard was so full of life, so endlessly curious, so excited about the possibility of a better world, and so tireless in trying to bring it about, that the world seems to have lost a little of its colour with his death. I’ll miss him enormously.

Does London really have the lowest cases and lowest vaccination rates?

As autumn sets in and Covid case numbers drift upwards, there is some good news for Londoners. Having been hit hardest by the first wave of infections, the capital now has some of the lowest case numbers. On 18 October, out of 315 English lower tier (unitary and district) councils, the ten with the lowest case rates were all London boroughs (except where indicated, all data in this article have been downloaded from the excellent Government dashboard).

This isn’t to downplay the terrible effect Covid has had on London. The disease has already killed more than 20,000 people in the capital, and has had a particularly brutal impact on poorer and disadvantaged communities. However, unlike March 2020, when cases shot up in the city and widespread urban flight was predicted, today you are safer from Covid living in Inner London than almost anywhere else in the UK.

This is good news, but it’s not immediately clear why London cases are so low. While the capital has the highest levels of antibodies according to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey, it also appears to have the lowest vaccination rates. The ten English lower tier authorities with the lowest vaccination rates by 14 October were all in London, and are many of the same boroughs that also have low infection rates. I’ve been wondering how we can account for this, without making spurious assertions about vaccine effectiveness.

Vaccination is not the only way to acquire immunity, so Londoners’ early exposure to the virus will have made a difference. London’s cumulative case numbers are equivalent to around 12.5 per cent of the population, which is higher than the other southern English regions, but lower than the Midlands and North. But in the early days of the pandemic, most cases were untested and unreported unless people became seriously ill, so London’s total cases have almost certainly been underestimated. By July 2020, 13 per cent of working age Londoners were already estimated to have been exposed to the virus, twice the national average.

However, there are also issues about how vaccination rates are calculated. Most Covid statistics use the 2020 mid-year population estimates as their denominator, but vaccination rates use the National Immunisation Management Service (NIMS) database. Reputable commentators have suggested that this database, which has been credited for supporting the rapid roll-out of vaccines, tends to overestimate populations of working age adults – particularly young adults and students, who are most mobile. Using ONS mid-year estimates for 2020 rather than NIMS figures makes a big difference to vaccination rates in London, as shown in the chart below, which shows the position as of 12 October.

Richard 2

(A side note: might the ONS mid-year estimates from 2020 also be wrong? They probably are. Most commentators believe London has lost population over the last year, though estimates vary wildly, from Professor Jonathan Portes’ estimate that around 700,000 people may have left the capital, to the GLA’s more cautious projection that around 100,000 people have done so. If we reduced London’s population by a pretty extreme ten per cent, or around 900,000 people, both vaccination and case rates would be higher, but not dramatically so – though the effect would be greater if population loss was concentrated in the Inner London boroughs.)

What does this all tell us? The first thing, which many of us have learnt over the past 18 months, is to be careful to interrogate statistics, asking what story they are being made to tell and whether there are other stories that might also fit, particularly where there seem to be dramatic differences between places. 

The second is to ask why local vaccination rates are being published in ways that seem to make take-up look artificially low in places with younger populations. This might seem trivial, or even a useful nudge for the young and for people in vaccine-hesitant communities to get their jabs, but using questionable data for righteous ends can be toxic. There are enough scurrilous rumours about vaccination effectiveness circulating without allowing people to draw hasty conclusions from the fact that the places with the lowest case rates are also those that appear to have the largest proportions of unvaccinated people.

The figures for deaths in council areas are seven day case rates by date reported, and the deaths attributed to Covid in the capital are defined as those where Covid has been mentioned on the death certificate, as of 14 October. 

Originally published by OnLondon.

Careless vistas

So many prime ministers have pledged action on social care before recoiling, that I really wanted to celebrate the PM grasping the late summer nettle of reform. But he seems to have  brushed casually past it while racing after shimmering mirage of making the NHS “the envy of the world”. Providing a ‘cap and floor’ for personal contributions to care is a good thing. It will reduce anxiety and help protect inheritances for many moderately well-off families, though using workers’ national insurance contributions to do so seems pretty well the least appropriate way of achieving that.

Or almost. State-provided adult social care (which London Councils estimate is 65 per cent of home care and 54 per cent of residential care) is currently funded by London’s boroughs, drawing on government grants, and the dysfunctional ugly twins of local government finance – council tax and national non-domestic rates.

Paying for social care accounted for more than 50 per cent of London borough service spending in 2018/19 according to Centre for London analysis (excluding public health, education and police services). London’s older population and younger population with care needs are both forecast to grow over the next decades, so the costs will rise. When he was chief executive of Barnet Council, Andrew Travers drew a ‘Graph of Doom’ showing social care (including children’s services) gobbling up the whole borough budget by 2030. The £3 billion or so (out of a total of £36 billion) left for reform of the system over the next three years would only just close the funding gap in London. It’s pretty thin gruel.

Even putting the matter of funding levels and taxes to one side for a moment, it makes no sense for the service to be delivered this way. People value social care, and see it as a critical service, but also look to councils for housing, planning, waste collection, street cleanings, park, libraries and schools.

The current model also creates an unhealthy tension between the NHS and social services, as older people are shunted gracelessly between home care, hospitals and residential care. I have heard anecdotes about councils employing full time lawyers to argue against hospital discharges into their care, and (full disclosure) I am personally in the middle of an unseemly haggle with the NHS and social services about who should be providing my mother’s care.

The row over the miserly allocation of funding to social care improvement, compared to the sums lavished on the NHS, illustrates the point. It is artificial to distinguish between the care provided to an old person at home and the care she receives on a hospital ward, not least because if you get the former right, you are less likely to have to pay for the latter.

I am generally all for devolution, but I think this may be the exception. The PM announced that the “NHS and social care systems need to be brought closer together” and talks of “integrated care systems”, but we have been hearing soft phrases like that for years. I think we need to be bolder, and nationalise funding for adult social care.

This does not necessarily mean nationalising care homes and care agencies, though in some cases that might be desirable or even necessary. It should mean tighter regulation to ensure decent pay and more consistently compassionate care.  In many cases, services would be provided pretty much as they are now (the NHS is far more used to operating through third-party providers than it was in the past), but decisions would be taken in a genuinely integrated way, where budgets allocations were not the issue.

This is not intended as a criticism of borough social services departments – London has some pioneering boroughs like Hammersmith and Fulham, who are I think the only local authority who levy no charges for home care, regardless of care recipients’ savings.

And the NHS is far from perfect; it has a lot to learn from social services about the management of long-term conditions, which often seems to take second place to the more life-affirming business of ‘curing’ people in hospitals. There would still be a role for local authorities, in managing interfaces with housing and other services, in promoting public health and preventative services, and in acting as champions and advocates for their residents – perhaps through continuing to play a part in assessments of need.

There are elements of today’s announcement that should be celebrated, but it is still tinkering with the system rather than seeking to transform and upgrade arrangements that date back 70 years. There has been a lot of talk about better joint working between the NHS and local government, but progress has been limited in London.  I’m afraid that the consequences of missing the opportunity for more fundamental structural change – or at least beginning a debate about it – will become increasingly apparent in the next few years.

Paying the price

Saying that Londoners are underpaid may not win many votes outside the M25, but persistently low pay is a huge problem for the capital and its citizens.

One way of looking at this is to compare Londoners’ salaries to the benchmark set by the London Living Wage (£10.85 in 2020/21), which is calculated as a rate that meets “everyday needs”. The chart below compares this benchmark to London’s 10th and 25th percentile pay rates – that is, the highest pay for the bottom 10 per cent and bottom 25 per cent of earners respectively – for sectors where there are enough workers to enable reliable estimates.

The chart shows where London’s low pay problem is concentrated. Twenty-five per cent of workers in retail, hospitality, admin support (jobs like security guards), social work (bundled with better-paid health jobs above), and entertainment were being paid less than the minimum hourly rate needed to live in London in 2020. Hospitality wages are particularly low: more than 60 per cent of workers in that sector were paid less than the London Living Wage.

There are two other things worth noting. Firstly, low pay may be a national problem, but it is more acute in London. Loughborough University research on “minimum income standards” indicates that Londoners in different household types need between 20 and 60 per cent more than people in other UK urban areas to afford a decent quality of life.

London jobs do pay a wage premium, but this is less than 10 per cent at the bottom end of low-paid sectors such as hospitality, security, residential care work and construction. In other words, the workers who most need the wage premium to live in London are also those least likely to get it.

Second, London’s lowest-paid sectors – industries such as food production (one of the lowest paid manufacturing sub-sectors), hospitality and social care – are some of those with the most acute labour shortages at the moment. (Others shortages, such as of HGV drivers, are complicated by the need for specialist training and licences.) They are also the sectors which have been most dependent on overseas workers in recent years.

The issue of labour shortages is hitting the news – and supermarket shelves – right now,  though some suggest the problem will solve itself over the coming weeks, as the distorting effects of pandemic support measures are removed. The furlough scheme, which has been accused of keeping workers in defunct jobs, rather than pushing them to look for new ones, ends next month. But it has been winding down for a while – the number of furloughed jobs in London halved between the end of February and end of June (though this is a slower rate of decline than other English regions) – while labour shortages have persisted or worsened as the economy has re-opened.

The other element of pandemic support has been the temporary £20 per week increase in Universal Credit (UC). More than a million Londoners were claiming UC in June 2021, three times the number two years earlier. Some of these are people who are out of work, but nearly 400,000 are working Londoners whose pay is simply not adequate to their needs. The removal of the £20 per week increase in UC, also due to take place at the end of next month, might encourage some non-working Londoners into employment, but will also push more working Londoners into poverty.

If people won’t be forced back into low-paid jobs by the removal of state support, can we look overseas instead? As border restrictions relax, London may once again attract workers from around the world, though the new immigration regime will prevent new arrivals for working in some of the city’s most crisis-hit sectors. 

But by debating how we can use imported labour and benefit subsidies to fill jobs that don’t pay enough, perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. Beyond the question of basic morality, coronavirus has exposed the precariousness of this approach to staffing our shops, bars, restaurants, building sites and care homes. Low pay may even be holding back innovation, as the Resolution Foundation recently observed, and hence productivity growth.

London’s economy is likely to change dramatically in coming years as the long-term impacts of the pandemic combine with the impact of technology and action on climate change. To be ready for these changes and the opportunities and disruptions they will create, London needs to pay workers better (as proposed by my former colleagues at Centre for London) or find smarter ways of doing their jobs. We can no longer afford low wages. 

Originally published by OnLondon.

Commuting again, cheek-to-cheek?

People are starting to come back to Central London, even if caution about rising case numbers, new variants and the onset of summer holidays mean the recovery is slow burn rather than big bang.

The graph below compares Transport for London (TfL) data on use of contactless and Oyster cards to tap in and out of stations on three sample days, according to different types of station (more detailed data and the station typology can be seen here). The days, chosen by me, are the last Thursday in July this year and last year, and the last Thursday in February last year. 

Screenshot 2021 08 12 at 14.14.00

The change between July 2020 and July 2021 is striking. Each group of stations saw around twice as many taps at the end of last month compared to the previous July, when restrictions were similarly relaxed, with a slightly stronger recovery for ‘City’ and ‘Tourist’ destinations, though ‘City’ station usage (which includes Canary Wharf, Holborn and Clerkenwell) remains only a third of pre-pandemic levels.

Comparisons with February 2020 show we are still a long way from business as usual, and it will be interesting to see whether change accelerates in September. But the overall picture looks positive for those who want to see people – the lifeblood of Central London – return to its streets, and is in line with the “organic” return to cities that James Forsyth wrote about in The Times last week.  

However, there could be bumps in the track ahead. One relates to human behaviour. Like many people, I have found my recent train and Tube trips a pretty pleasant experience. I’ve had a seat and not been too close to other people, even if wearing a mask is a minor spec-fogging inconvenience.

The closer we get to pre-pandemic levels of loading, however, the closer we will get to crowding levels that we find uncomfortable. It’s hard to say in advance what these will be – standing room only, shoulder-to-shoulder, armpit-to-nostril? – and tolerances will vary, but I suspect each of us could reach a tipping point where we no longer feel so happy using the Tube, however low Covid cases may be. 

More staggered commuting hours may mitigate crowding. And we can expect some reduction in demand from increased working from home, though if everyone works from home on Monday and Friday it will do little to ameliorate crowding midweek. But I suspect there will be a self-regulating brake on levels of Tube usage over the next few years at least, and that brake will apply itself at a lower level than before the pandemic.

The problem will become a whole lot worse if Transport for London’s funding deal, still being thrashed out with government, forces cuts in service frequency and capacity, as government has suggested it might. A recent national poll suggested that 23 per cent of people anticipate using public transport less, with most of those expecting to use cars more. In London, congestion, the soon-to-be enlarged Ultra Low Emission Zone and parking charges may make that less of an option. But squeezing services could increase crowding, and in turn drive more people away from public transport – maybe to walk or cycle, but maybe just to stay away from Central London altogether.

TfL needs a funding deal that recognises how precarious London’s recovery could be, and how easily service cutbacks could push the Tube into spiral of overcrowding, falling passenger numbers and falling revenues. This means looking beyond reliance on fares for the next few years at least, to run the system as a vital amenity for urban recovery, rather than a commercial service to customers. If the government wants people to come back into London and other city centres, it needs to support public transport systems that marry environmental sustainability with economic vitality.

First published by OnLondon.

Buy with a little help

Should wider home ownership be a public policy objective? It is one of the big fault lines in housing policy debates. Advocates argue that ownership represents better value than renting, offers people a way to build up capital and creates more stable neighbourhoods. Sceptics say that our obsession with property ownership is diverting investment from more socially useful channels and fuelling a monstrous bubble of unaffordable house prices.

Both arguments are true to an extent. Home ownership has built up capital for generations and supported social mobility, but as prices have shot up more and more people have been locked out. Home ownership rose through the 20th Century, from fewer than 25 per cent of households in 1918 to nearly 70 per cent in 2001, though it has fallen back since then and particularly since the financial crisis of 2008/09. 

In London, ownership fell sharply for 25-34 year olds in the first years of this century. Fifty per cent of that age group were owner-occupiers in 2001, but only 27 per cent were in 2016. The proportion has risen slightly since then (as a result of stalled prices and extended availability of Help to Buy loans), but remains low by historic standards. 

It’s not hard to see why: mortgages may be relatively affordable, but the 2019/20 English Housing Survey, published this week, found that the median deposit for London’s first time buyers was £70,000 – more than twice the median salary. Given that less than half of those renting privately have any savings at all, it is mainly those with family wealth (“the Bank of Mum and Dad”) who can buy a property.

Some buyers have been assisted by the Help-to-Buy Equity Loan scheme (H2B), which was launched in 2013. It allows buyers to borrow a proportion of their deposit from the state and repay it when they sell-up or remortgage. Take up was initially low in London, but has increased since the maximum loan available was raised in 2016.

The scheme has been controversial. By stoking demand while doing to nothing to boost housing supply, it has been accused of pushing up prices. Restricting the scheme to new-builds has fuelled overpriced, poor quality schemes aimed primarily at the H2B market. These is also a risk that both government and house-buyers are left with losses in a period of stagnating prices. And now, the government has started winding the scheme down, restricting it to first-time buyers, and planning to shut it down completely by 2023. They have not said what, if anything, will replace it.

What is to be done? Many would advocate a huge increase in social housing provision and an end to the obsession with the “property ladder”. We certainly need more social housing. But as someone who bought a home when they were relatively cheap, I am uneasy with “Generation X-plaining” to younger people that they should be happy renting and miss out on the security and opportunities that can come with home ownership. And London’s recovery from coronavirus will not be helped if people who want to buy have to move out of the city (or choose wealthier parents). 

Of course, we don’t know what will happen to UK house prices as we recover from the Covid crisis. As the Stamp Duty holiday ends and the recession bites, the market may slow or even go into reverse. London already has the lowest rate of house price growth in England. Market moderation is welcome, but London would need a precipitous and damaging crash in prices (which would freeze the supply of new homes for sale) to bring them in line with wages and savings. Even the government’s favoured solution – discounted “first homes” – would require deposits beyond the means of many Londoners.

There is a powerful moral case for supporting first-time buyers, particularly those without family wealth, and the core of the H2B approach – a state-sponsored loan that is repaid as and when property prices rise – seems sound. But the scheme needs fixing. Firstly, it should not be restricted to new build, thereby tying young people into an expensive and mixed-quality market. Its primary purpose should be levelling the playing field, not “stimulating the market”. And the scheme should be able to run for longer than five years, particularly given the choppy conditions of the property market right now.

Would this simply fuel the speculative fires of the UK housing market? Maybe. But punishing young people from poorer backgrounds for the exuberance of property speculation seems absurd and unfair. So we should accompany support for first time buyers, with reform of the tax breaks that make home ownership so attractive as an investment – for example, the UK’s outdated and regressive property taxes, and even the exemption of family homes from capital gains and inheritance taxes. There is no reason, beyond electoral calculation, that homes and homes alone should allow untaxed capital accumulation. 

Restricting house-buying to wealthy families is a problem. Runaway house price inflation has also been a problem. Both problems have been most acute in London in recent years, and they need to be tackled together if the city is to offer opportunity to present and future citizens alike as it recovers from the pandemic. 

First published by OnLondon.