Roundtable 4: The Metropolitan Economy, Jobs and Equality
The last of the set of (completed) roundtables, focused on matters relating to the London economy, work and inequalities, was perhaps the oddest because the role that the Mayor actually performs in these fields, or can reasonably be expected to perform, is so unclear. Equally the pandemic and its impact on the London economy makes it ever more important to develop proactive approaches to maintaining employment and particularly to address worsening inequalities.
When London government was restored 20 years ago, a core rationale for having a directly elected Mayor was seen to be that the person elected would ‘speak for’ London and promote its national and international economic position. Bringing the Olympics to London in 2012, as Mayor Livingstone did (while of questionable economic significance) seems a prime example of a Mayor acting in this way. One reason why such a spokesperson might be needed (even from a national perspective) is that London has rarely been that popular with provincial commentators and electors, being suspected of being a Great Wen, absorbing rather than generating economic dynamism. This continuing perception may well underlie recent government emphasis on ‘levelling up’ the national economy. In this context the Mayor’s (August 2019) London and the UK: Declaration of Interdependence appears as an anticipatory response to such an agenda, emphasising the fiscal as well as the productive contribution that London makes, and also the squeeze on real earnings of many Londoners during these years.
Unsurprisingly then, one priority line of questioning for candidates focused on what kind of economic case each prospective Mayor would wish to make to national government to sustain the fiscal support required for the capital city economy to continue operating effectively. An important element in this context was the need to maintain infrastructure funding where central government continues to play a key role. Another was how London could ensure that London obtained a fair share of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund which is seen as replacing European funding.
A second issue around the relationship of the GLA to national government lay in the possible devolution of more powers. Those noted were around the possibility of local carbon taxes but also the possibility of introducing London specific rent and security of tenure regulations for the private rented sector. The more general issue of restructuring property-based taxation to give greater devolved powers and funding was left to another time.
Other lines of questioning were more directed to how potential Mayors might try to rebalance the economy) in order to protect/advance the living standards among groups of Londoners and locations within London that have been ‘left behind’ by the new economy. An area of particular concern here was how to revive and maintain local high streets and help to enable movement towards very different ranges of activities in these locations.
A more general issue raised was whether candidates see a role for the Mayor in involving local authorities in building a more coherent economic policy across boroughs. This further raised the issue of whether ‘good growth’, rather than growth per se, should remain the objective – and indeed whether particularly for environmental reasons, growth at all, should continue to be the objective. This was a topic that we had intended to return to in the final session. When we return next March the topic may well be more about how to limit decline but will also be even more relevant.
Discussion in this 4th roundtable was notably different from that in the 1st and 2nd
(on housing and transport), in particular, where there were more obvious links between goals to be achieved and delivery mechanisms – even if, as in the housing case, those mechanisms might not be wholly feasible.
In the context of the London economy the most obvious policy linkages were with (i) spatial policies (decentralisation versus dispersal, housing versus industrial uses of land, and the treatment of key inward investment projects) and (ii) transport investment (Crossrails etc.) which both impact on the location of activity and modify costs and values
However, the broader aspirations of the Mayor’s Economic Development Strategy for London, including: further to enhance London’s competitiveness, through a business environment conducive to investment and growth; to share the proceeds of growth more equally; and to prioritise the general wellbeing, health and happiness of Londoners – involve an array of actions where the delivery instruments are less clear. Indeed, it is hard to know what actually has been promised, still less what these actions, such as targeting support to key sectors and the development of Londoners’ human capital have achieved. That seems to be even more the case in view of GLA Economics’ much less complacent perspective on London’s productivity and innovation performance (in their Evidence Base for London’s Local Industrial Strategy, February 2020), suggesting initiatives across large elements in the UK economy that a London Mayor can scarcely hope to address.
Two appropriate lines of questioning for Mayoral candidates might therefore be first, which aspects of London’s economic structure and performance might they realistically expect make a difference to and, second, what criteria might be used to assess this aspect of their performance.