‘Levelling-up fund’ is thin and cynical

Five days after the 2021 Budget, are we any clearer what “levelling up” means?

One thing is clear. It doesn’t mean investing to tackle London’s problems, even after the damage done to the capital by the pandemic. Only two of London’s boroughs (Newham and Barking & Dagenham) are included in the priority tier of local authorities eligible for the new £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund. The three prioritising ‘place characteristics’ set out in the Fund’s Prospectus could have been designed to exclude the capital:

  • Need for economic recovery and growth;
  • Need for improved transport connectivity; and
  • Need for regeneration.

It’s not yet clear how these are quantified and compared (or precisely what “regeneration” means), but the first two work well enough to rule out London, which is distinguished by a persistent mixture of dynamism and deprivation alongside an enviable transport network. Boroughs like Westminster and Tower Hamlets have intense poverty among their residents, but also have three times the economic output per head of the UK as a whole, and twice that of other big cities like Manchester, Belfast and Edinburgh.

So this is not a fund for London, or for investing in the needs of people rather than place. And there is a case to be made for that: even London’s most fervent advocates would recognise that there are places in the UK that urgently need investment in connectivity and economic activity. You could even see a precursor in Michael Heseltine’s City Challenge programme of the early 1990s: selecting and investing heavily in a few urban centres, following a bidding process, which would in turn power up new enterprise and opportunity around them.

But that doesn’t seem to be how this Fund will be applied. The prospectus invites local authorities to submit one bid each for up to £20 million (£50 million in exceptional cases for big transport projects). Twenty million is a substantial sum, but hardly transformative – and significantly less than was allocated to City Challenge bidders 30 years ago, when 20 cities received £37.5 million each (around £72 million in today’s money). Assuming £2 billion is handed out in the first round, this would enable 100 bids to be funded. It looks as if spreading the jam wide and thin is the priority.

This may also explain the variety of places in the priority tier. It includes most major city centres (apart from London and also struggling smaller cities like Sheffield, Plymouth and Portsmouth). But it also comprises “Red Wall” marginals and prosperous suburbs and rural areas such as Richmondshire (I suspect to the Chancellor’s embarrassment), Lewes and Trafford.

Poverty is not confined to the inner cities, but not every smaller town and rural area is struggling either. Some lack economic powerhouses and transport hubs, but nevertheless have prosperous populations of commuters and retired people. You can see the government’s problem here: it is hard to distinguish struggling from successful smaller towns without giving a higher weighting to deprivation measures, and  doing that would have pushed the focus back towards London and the other big cities.

The language of the prospectus seems to fudge things further. It makes a very tentative and non-economic case for infrastructure investment:

“Investing in infrastructure has the potential to improve lives by giving people pride in their local communities; bringing more places across the UK closer to opportunity; and demonstrating that government can visibly deliver against the diverse needs of all places and all geographies.”

Elsewhere, the prospectus talks about funding projects that “bring pride to a local area”, about “infrastructure that has a visible impact on people and their communities”. It starts to sound as if the purpose of the fund is performative. It aims to give the appearance of activity and impact in the next three years, redeeming the electoral promise made to “Red Wall’ constituencies, rather than seeking any lasting change, let alone the type of economic rebalancing that has evaded ministers for decades.

Either I’m being deeply cynical or the Levelling Up Fund is. There’s no sense of strategy, of how “levelling up” might be achieved, or even of what it is. A bold government could focus a critical mass of investment on the places and projects that could maximise prosperity and opportunity, or it could hand funding over to local politicians to allocate in line with local priorities. Instead, we have the continuation of centralised munificence, infrastructure investment by supplication.

The Mayor of London and borough leaders have expressed anger at how the Levelling Up Fund has ignored London’s needs. If I was leader of a northern city, I might be angrier still.

[First published in OnLondon, 7 March 2021]

Big Bang and Grande Bouffe – the eateries that boosted London (March 2019)

 [Originally in OnLondon, 8 March 2019]

‘There’s a Big Bang in the City, We’re all on the make.” (Shopping, Pet Shop Boys, 1987).

The news this week that the Kensington Place restaurant is to shut its doors is more than just another restaurant closure. It completes a chapter in the incredible story of London’s 30 year resurgence.

The years 1986 and 1987 were pivotal for the capital and the high water mark for Thatcherism. In April 1986, amidst a blaze of fireworks and protests, the Greater London Council was abolished alongside other metropolitan councils, banishing the spectre of “socialism on the rates”. And in October – after years of wrangling – the “Big Bang” transformed financial services.

The details of the Big Bang are complex. Essentially it was a package of reforms that deregulated stockbroking, opened up London’s Stock Exchange to foreign-owned firms and enabled computerised trading to replace the frantic scrum of “open outcry” trading on its floor. But the Big Bang represented something more – the apotheosis of confident capitalism, personified by the mobile phone-toting Yuppie, in TV dramas such as Capital City, and by Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney – conceived as satire, but sometimes treated as a role model.

The Big Bang was also cited as a factor in the revival in net international migration, which meant London’s population started to grow again – albeit just by a few thousand a year – after decades of decline. At the time, London’s return to growth was seen as an anomaly, or even a blip. Writing in early 1987, Tony Champion and Peter Congdon suggested that the “surge in net international migration for City jobs will settle down after Big Bang”.

In 1987, as the Conservatives celebrated their third consecutive election victory, and the City of London was rocked by the twin shocks of the “Black Monday” crash and the emergence of Canary Wharf to the east, the Big Bang was also having an impact to the west. Three restaurants opened to cater to London’s growing gang of globally mobile professionals with sophisticated palates. In doing so, they put London’s food scene on the road to transformation from international punchline to global draw.

In Hammersmith, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray took over a disused warehouse building next door to Ruth’s husband’s firm, Richard Rogers Partnership. The River Café started by serving lunches to local workers, before gradually opening for longer hours and a wider clientele. But from the outset Ruth and Rose focused on fresh flavours and carefully chosen ingredients, an Italian cuisine that was a world away from the mounds of pasta, check table cloths and straw-covered chianti bottles of traditional trattorias.

In South Kensington, Terence Conran opened Bibendum in the opulent Michelin Tyre Company building on Fulham Road. Chef Simon Hopkinson’s cuisine was as deeply rooted in the rich sauces and offals of French country cooking as the River Café’s was in in the bright and earthy flavours of Tuscany. But, also like the River Café, Bibendum matched this respect for the classics with a stripped-back modernist ethos. Both restaurants were a world away from the tweezered pretension of 1980s nouvelle cuisine.

A little further west, Rowley Leigh opened Kensington Place, serving modern British food (almost a contradiction in terms at the time) in deliberately informal surroundings, dispensing with table cloths to create a London version of the neighbourhood brasseries that dotted Paris, and pioneering dishes such as scallops with pea puree that have now become gastropub standards.

By 1989, the “Lawson Boom” that had driven the ebullience of yuppie culture had run out of steam and the UK began to dip into a recession that hit London particularly hard, with soaring interest rates, a property market crash and thousands of homeowners facing negative equity. But the three restaurants that reinvented London’s food scene survived, and London’s population growth picked up pace. As Kensington Place closes, to be redeveloped for housing, it is caught in the undertow of the wave of change that it surfed.

Block-ed

Redeveloping council estates has become a popular way for boroughs to build more houses in London, where land is at a premium, but it is a high-wire act, conducted over a shark tank, with volleys of custard pies being hurled from the sidelines.

Build at too low densities and the numbers won\’t add up; go too high and you create a lumpy enclave out of keeping with its surroundings. Spend too much buying out existing residents and you kill the business case; spend too little and you will have to resort to compulsory purchase. Build too much market housing and you\’re accused of driving poor people from their homes; build too little and you won\’t make enough to cross-subsidise more affordable housing. Offer too little to developers and they won\’t take on the risk; offer too much and you look like an easy touch.

One of London\’s largest such schemes began to wobble on Friday, when the Secretary of State turned down Southwark\’s Council\’s application for a compulsory purchase order to enable the demolition and redevelopment of the Aylesbury Estate, planned to increase total housing numbers from 2,700 to 4,000.  The scheme has been intensely controversial, with accusations of \’social cleansing\’, occupations and forcible evictions providing a stormy backdrop to the slow-grinding legalities of planning and public enquiries.

It is hard to avoid boggling at the politics of a Conservative minister seemingly siding with anti-gentrification protestors against a major development scheme promoted by a Labour council. Is this a sign of the May government\’s commitment to helping the poorest in society? Is this dismissal of the public-private partnerships that have dominated public projects for so many years another sign of the \’end of liberalism\’?

You can imagine Conservative spin doctors savouring some of these interpretations, but the politics of this decision are probably fortuitous rather than intentional. The process of confirming (or not) compulsory purchase orders is a quasi-judicial one, made on the basis of an inspector\’s report and carefully worded official advice, not for political positioning.

And, when you look a bit deeper, the decision is a very conservative one.  It was not the rights of council tenants that were the central consideration, but eight remaining leaseholders, owners of property bought under right-to-buy legislation.  The compensation offered to them was judged to be inadequate, and their human rights likely to be breached if their homes were requisitioned. It was actually the very conservative defence of private property rights, and the Conservative policy of selling off council housing, that has knocked the project off course.

Tales of antique power

Another year, another scheme for redeveloping Battersea Power Station begins to wilt. The site is caught in a double bind. The listed power station (right, photo Tagishsimon) takes up so much space and requires so much investment to keep it safe, let alone equip it for re-occupation, that it is hard to make any scheme make commercial sense at the best of times.

Balancing the books requires a density of development on the rest of the site that cannot be reconciled with its poor public transport accessibility, and the costs of building new infrastructure (the most recent proposals include a spur from the Northern Line) just make marginally viable proposals more fragile still.

You could argue that the only way to bring the site into use would be to demolish the power station. That would be a shame. I have been lucky enough to visit the building, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and opened in 1933, and its interiors are as stunning as its looming form, if not more so. The turbine halls are elegantly tiled, and the control rooms truly magnificent. Crafted wooden fittings are surrounded by decorative wall and ceiling tiles, and bakelite switches are inscribed with the names of substations and districts. This, the interiors say, is a place where something important, and magical, takes place.

The overall impression is one of pride, pride in the modernism and progress that this temple of power once represented, a pride that can also be seen in elaborate Victorian shrines of sanitation, like Bazalgette\’s ornate pumping stations at Crossness and Abbey Mills (left, photo Gordon Joly).

This pride in utilities is something we have lost. As I walked through Redhill a couple of weeks ago, the contrast between the grandeur of the Royal Earlswood Hospital and the shabby incoherence of the East Surrey Hospital could not have been starker. While offices, libraries and civic centres can still win awards, it is almost as if the mundane necessities of power, health and sanitation have become embarassments, to be covered up and smothered, like a burp in polite company.

We are left with tacky trash, rendered all the more conspicuous by its artless attempts to blend in.

(Not) going down the pub

Raised on concrete stilts, the Docklands Light Railway affords a privileged view of East London to its passengers. Amidst austerely functional blocks of post-war housing, churches and pubs stand out – richly tiled and decorated relics of a Victorian past. Owned by the breweries, they (the pubs, that is) were left standing on street corners as the slums of Poplar, Shadwell and Whitechapel were demolished.

But changes in the pub trade are now conspiring with London\’s insanely effervescent property market to dismantle what the Luftwaffe and the planners left intact. The Evening Standard recently reported that around a quarter of pubs near the Olympic site in Bow are closing. It\’s unfair to blame the Olympics for this – a changing population (more muslim in East London), the smoking ban and changing attitudes to drinking all contribute – but London 2012 is accelerating the process that kills boozers.

As the market value for new-build flats goes through the roof, the new pub-owning companies – nowadays as canny as property speculators as they are at managing licensed premises – are quick to take advantage. Depending on your views, you can call this regeneration or gentrification, but the outcome is the same – a gradual retreat from the ideal of mixed-use neighbourhoods to which modern planners and developers must at least claim to aspire.

It\’s not just happening in East London. Urban 75 lists some of the shabbier (and I mean that as a compliment) drinking dens that have closed around Brixton in recent years, to be replaced by \’luxury apartments\’. Fight backs can work: the Pineapple in Kentish Town managed to see off developers a few years ago, but it\’s probably easier in NW5, where stars like Rufus Sewell will rush to your aid, than in E3 or SW9.

Councils are taking notice, and several (including Tower Hamlets) have put in place policies to protect viable pubs in residential areas, but it may already be too late. The city is zoning itself, making a mockery of mixed use. As brutal \’vertical drinking\’ districts spread like a rash, neighbourhood pubs are in retreat, before the relentless march of housing-led \’regeneration\’.

From Canary Wharf to Canvey Island

Thames Gateway: environmental disaster in the making, bleak repository for the worst of ticky-tacky volume housebuilding, or an unrivalled offer of increased prosperity, enhanced environment and vibrant quality of life? Only one of these asssessments is drawn from a Government website. You can probably guess which.

In the wake of a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report, commentators have been lining up to give ‘the Thames Gateway project’ a comprehensive monstering. The NAO criticised the project for having too many organisations involved, and for lacking clear leadership, a costed delivery plan and performance indicators.

This is all fine as far as it goes (though as an ex-researcher for the Audit Commission, the NAO’s local government equivalent, I know that these criticisms are audit boilerplate, applicable to almost any area of public life), but it’s worth keeping a sense of scale.

The Thames Gateway is vast: more than 700 square miles of land, stretching from London’s East End to the Isle of Sheppey (as far as the distance from Marble Arch to Oxford). It contains multitudes: marshland and power stations, wharfs and wild horses, factories and new towns, Canary Wharf and Canvey Island. Should there be – could there be – a single vision or plan for such a place?

Architect Sir Terry Farrell thinks there should. He has been decrying the Government’s failure to adopt his ‘vision’ in the media. He thinks we could accommodate not hundreds of thousands, but millions of home in London’s built up areas, leaving the rest of the Gateway as a national park and creating new islands at the mouth of the Thames. But these proposals are more a welcome provocation than the sort of plan the NAO are seeking.

I should declare an interest. In a previous life, I helped develop plans for London’s slice of Thames Gateway. These were profoundly modest in their scope, and even then took more than a year of debate between multiple agencies and layers of government. It’s hard to see what the alternative is, in a pluralistic and complex society. Which organisations should be knocked out of the way: county councils, the Mayor of London, regional development agencies?

To an extent, the Government is a victim of its own hype, or even of hubris. They trumpeted Thames Gateway as the biggest regeneration project in the world and said that they were in charge. Their bluff is now being called. They have a small team in Whitehall, some new urban regeneration bodies, and a budget of £700 million over three years. This is a lot of money, but looks smaller spread across 700 miles; it’s probably only about twice the build costs of London’s Olympic stadium. To be honest, government can only tinker at the edges, while Barratt, Persimmon and Bellway Homes get on with business as usual.

There is a growing debate about whether the state should become more interventionist, and should start to manage house building and urban regeneration more directly, rather than seeking to regulate and plan a market over which they have little real control. This is a subject for another day, but in the meantime we might ask: is the problem that Thames Gateway is too big, or that government is too small?

What\’s in a name?

It\’s very rare these days for a story to appear and disappear, without leaving a digital trail somewhere on the internet.

Last Thursday (14 June 2007), London\’s three evening papers picked up the same story: that the International Olympic Committee Co-ordination Commission (the group of IOC members sent over to check on London\’s progress in preparing for the 2012 Games) had said that they were uncomfortable with the Olympic Delivery Authority\’s name.

Why? Because the bulk of the ODA\’s £9bn budget is now to be spent on cleaning up land and putting infrastructure into East London\’s Lea Valley, rather than on erecting Olympic venues. The panjandrums of the IOC are nothing of not assiduous in defending the value of their brand, and they were reported to be unhappy with the association of the \’O-word\’ with such extensive public spending (and some of the unavoidable but unpleasant side-effects of development, like displacement of businesses and residents).

The story had a ring of truth, however odd it might seem at first glance. The IOC is very keen to emphasise that the Olympic Games are self-funding (from ticketing, sponsorship and merchandising revenues). Their view is that, if a city has to build new facilities to accommodate the Games, then that is their business, and a demonstration of the catalytic effect that the whole circus can have on nations that host it.

But you can\’t have it both ways. It is a truth insufficiently acknowledged that \’regeneration\’ is not the one way street that its shiny name implies. Regeneration displaces, and regeneration costs. The Olympics have made the Government do what they would never have done otherwise: make the heavy investment needed to turn round one of the poorest areas in the UK. The IOC should be proud to be associated with this investment, and should take its share of the knocks too.

The story had vanished by Thursday night. Perhaps it was untrue. Or perhaps it was seen as too damaging to the brand…