Claire Harding, Research Director at Centre for London
Over the last year, Centre for London have been running a research project on what levelling up means for London. We expected to be reacting to government’s ideas about investment, transport funding and productivity. We didn’t expect three prime ministers, or for the levelling up secretary to leave in July and return to the same job in October.
This is a shame in a way as there were some good ideas in the government's plans for levelling up: it makes sense to try to grow economies outside London so opportunities are spread more widely between places. But while the policy was sensible (if massively underfunded) the politics was pretty nasty, with many MPs critical of London and Londoners - especially areas seen as liberal and wealthy, even where many of the people in these areas are actually struggling on low incomes.
Part of this is pure electoral maths - over the last few decades, Londoners have been increasingly likely to vote Labour, so less and less of the capital is an electoral battleground. Some politicians in both main parties seem to think there are more votes in attacking London than there are in supporting it. It doesn't help that journalists and commentators sometimes use "London" to mean politicians in London, the elite in London, banks in London, national institutions in London - but not ordinary people in London.
Over the summer, we ran a series of focus groups to find out what people inside and outside London actually think about the politics and policy of levelling up. In general, people supported the idea of better opportunity in places outside London, but they were pretty suspicious that levelling up would ever work: one person in the north of England said it was "just one of the manifestos that the government put across but will never actually implement across the country".
This suspicion of government wasn't a huge surprise. We were more surprised that people didn't really buy the anti-London argument. Some people did think that good jobs are concentrated too much in London: we agree. But they also recognised the poverty and housing problems that many Londoners face: one said that “I could probably work in Starbucks in Liverpool and still pay my rent and have a car and live on my own here, but I couldn’t in London”. This fits with generally high levels of concern about housing and poverty at the moment, even among those who aren’t experiencing problems themselves – our own polling shows that older Londoners are deeply concerned about younger Londoners’ ability to buy a home, and support for raising benefits is higher than it’s been for decades.
The last year has been immensely tough for many Londoners and next year will probably be even tougher. People in London know and it gives us hope that people outside London know it as well. It’s time for politicians to drop the divisive rhetoric about places, and focus on using all the assets we have to get through these deeply challenging times.